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Jeff Shell to replace Steve Burke as NBCUniversal chief executive

Jeff Shell
NBCUniversal Chief Executive Jeff Shell.
(Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images)

Jeff Shell will be named chief executive of NBCUniversal as early as next week, replacing Steve Burke, who will become chairman of the media company through the Summer Olympics, according to three people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Shell, a Comcast Corp. executive for 15 years, has long been one of Burke’s most trusted lieutenants. The Los Angeles native became chairman of the Universal film studio in 2013, and at the time was considered an unlikely pick because he had no experience in the movie business. A former Fox television executive, Shell ran Comcast’s small cable channels, including its sports networks, before Comcast purchased NBCUniversal in 2011. He then managed NBCUniversal’s international operations but happily returned to his home in L.A. in 2013 because Comcast wanted a Hollywood outsider to lead its West Coast operations.

Now Shell, 54, is poised to take the top job in January at the media company, which owns the NBC broadcast network, the Universal film studio, DreamWorks Animation, Universal Studios theme parks, cable channels USA, Bravo, MSNBC and CNBC and European satellite TV provider Sky. Burke has been grooming Shell for more than a decade, impressed by his straightforward style and grasp of intricate business details.

“Jeff is a very able executive,” Burke told The Times in 2015 after promoting him to be in charge of the film studio. “And the bigger the job in these companies, the more important it becomes that you can work well with the team. And Jeff has a particular style, and a humility about him.”

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Earlier this year, Shell took on an expanded portfolio that includes oversight of the NBC broadcast network, the company’s international operations and its Spanish-language network Telemundo. The move in January telegraphed Burke’s succession planning.

News of Burke’s departure leaked late Thursday. Burke, 61, has managed NBCUniversal since Philadelphia cable giant Comcast Corp. purchased the media company from General Electric Co. in January 2011, rebuilding the tattered firm into a juggernaut. He has privately expressed an interest in leaving the company when his deal expires in August to begin a new chapter in his life, according to people familiar with the matter.

NBCUniversal representatives declined to comment. Burke did not respond to a request for comment.

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Burke’s departure comes at a pivotal time for the company. NBCUniversal has two signature events coming in 2020: the launch of Peacock, a planned streaming service, and the broadcast of the 2020 Summer Olympics. The Games in Tokyo are expected to be highly profitable for NBCUniversal; already the company has received more than $1 billion in advertising commitments.

The son of Dan Burke, the legendary co-leader of Capital Cities/ABC, Steve Burke got his start at Disney, launching Disney Stores and helping run Euro Disney before taking charge of the Burbank company’s ABC unit. Once seen as a successor to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Burke startled Wall Street when he decamped for Comcast in 1998 when it was just a small cable company. Since then, Burke has been a key ally of Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts.

People close to Burke said the CEO is not eyeing a job at another media company. Burke has said that he had little interest in competing against Comcast. He previously told The Times that he had no intention of clinging to power long past his prime.

Burke is expected to spend more time on his Montana ranch or pursue something in the investing world. He has made a fortune at Comcast (his annual compensation typically tops $30 million) and has the financial chops. Burke has been a board member on one of the world’s largest banks, JPMorgan Chase, since 2004.

“He is one of the most thoughtful executives,” Jessica Reif Ehrlich, a media analyst with Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, said Friday of Burke. “Since Comcast and Steve Burke have been in charge, they’ve grown that business in ways that no one could imagine.”

Leaving in 2020 would mark a logical inflection point as the entire industry is in transition. NBCUniversal has grown substantially under Burke’s watch, taking full control of the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Fla., and building that portfolio. The company is constructing a sprawling theme park in China — Universal Studios Beijing — and its opening is slated for early 2021. It will be the fifth branded Universal Studios park.

Under Burke, NBCUniversal also acquired DreamWorks Animation and last year consolidated the London-based satellite broadcasting giant Sky, which serves five prosperous countries in Europe. He helped secure rights to the Olympics through 2032. NBCUniversal’s operating cash flow, the metric it uses to measure profitability, has grown from $3.8 billion in 2011 to $8.6 billion in 2018, according to the company.

“They’ve turned the company around in so many ways,” Reif Ehrlich said. “The Universal film studio was a disaster when they came in, and now it has a franchise strategy. Their broadcast business has grown 41%. They’ve just done a phenomenal job investing in businesses — look at Telemundo.”

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However, NBCUniversal has seen its image tarnished at its hallowed NBC News unit. The network’s “Today” morning show anchor Matt Lauer left two years ago amid a sexual harassment scandal, and questions linger about whether top NBCUniversal executives were aware of Lauer’s alleged behavior. The company also struggled to defend its top news executives after investigative reporter Ronan Farrow last year took his Harvey Weinstein investigation to New Yorker magazine because NBC News slammed the brakes on his reporting.

Shell, as the next CEO of NBCUniversal, also will face existential challenges as the cable TV business, which has been key to NBCUniversal’s profits, shrinks with more consumers cutting the pay-TV cord. Broadcast television, including NBC, has witnessed a sharp drop in prime-time ratings. The movie business faces uncertainty as consumers spend more time watching streaming service programs at home.

And it’s unclear whether the Peacock streaming service, which is expected to debut in April, will resonate with consumers in an already crowded market.

“Jeff Shell is a very strong executive,” Reif Ehrlich said. “He’s not one of those brash “hey, look at me” type of executives. And he’s taken on tons of new jobs over the years and he’s always done exceptionally well.”

The other candidate who had been in the running to replace Burke was Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCUniversal Broadcast, Cable, Sports and News. Lazarus, the head of NBC Sports since 2011, in January took over most of NBCUniversal’s East Coast-based content businesses, including the high-profile NBC News, which encompasses MSNBC and CNBC, and cable channels such as USA, Syfy and E!

Variety first reported on Burke’s expected exit.

Comcast shares climbed 57 cents, or 1.33%, to $43.58 on Friday.

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Times staff writers Ryan Faughnder and Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.


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