Comcast Corp. on Monday announced its changing of the peacock guard: Steve Burke, chief executive of NBCUniversal for nearly nine years, will hand over the reins to TV and film executive Jeff Shell on Jan. 1.
Burke will serve as chairman of the company for eight months, then retire on Aug. 14, following the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Shell, 54, a Los Angeles native, has been in charge of NBCUniversal’s West Coast properties, including NBC Entertainment and Universal Pictures, for nearly a year. Burke has been grooming Shell in various roles for more than a decade.
Comcast, the Philadelphia cable giant, owns NBCUniversal. Burke’s departure comes at a pivotal time for the company, which has two signature events in 2020: the launch of Peacock, a planned streaming service, and the broadcast of the Olympics. In addition to NBC and the Universal film studio, the company owns DreamWorks Animation; Universal Studios theme parks; cable channels USA, Bravo, MSNBC and CNBC; and European satellite TV provider Sky.
“Jeff Shell is the ideal executive to take the helm at NBCUniversal,” Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts said in a statement. “I have worked closely with Jeff for many years and he is an extraordinary leader who inspires loyalty, delivers strong results and cares deeply about our company, its employees and partners.”
News of Burke’s upcoming retirement — at the age of 62 — rocked the media industry. Over the last 21 years, Burke has been Roberts’ trusted lieutenant, and most high-level media executives try to hold on to power into their 70s. Burke separately serves on the board of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. He has been CEO of NBCUniversal since January 2011, when Comcast bought the media giant from General Electric Co.
“While this has been a dream job, it has always been my plan to hand off the baton at the right moment and move on to the next chapter of my life where I can pursue a different set of interests,” Burke said in a statement, noting that Shell “is the right leader to usher in the next phase of growth and success for NBCUniversal.”
Burke is credited with rebuilding NBCUniversal. The legendary NBC network was in fourth place when Comcast acquired the company and was losing about $600 million a year. Burke ousted the old regime and began investing in content. NBC has won the prime-time season for the last six years. The film studio was weighed down by executive infighting and the lack of a cohesive franchise strategy. The studio has gone on to post two record years.
Comcast quickly bought out the private equity partners in the Orlando Universal Studios theme park and began rebuilding that business with Harry Potter and other franchises. NBCUniversal also began investing in its Spanish-language unit, Telemundo, and eventually Telemundo surpassed longtime heavyweight Univision in prime time.
NBCUniversal grew its earnings before interest, taxes and depreciation to $8.6 billion in 2018 from $3.4 billion in 2011. Comcast noted that was the fastest growth rate of any major media company.
“I will miss Steve’s trusted partnership, and I know I speak for both myself and my late father, Ralph, when I say that we will be forever grateful to him for shaping first Comcast and then NBCUniversal into the great companies they are today,” Roberts said.
Nonetheless, Shell will face enormous challenges as the cable TV business, key to the company’s profits, has been eroded by cord-cutting. 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.
Shell is the oldest of four high achievers born to a Cedars-Sinai cardiologist and a teacher turned stay-at-home mother. A sports fanatic, Shell — who is 5 feet 9 — made the varsity basketball team at University High after spending long hours in his backyard perfecting his jump shot. He’s an ardent Dodgers and Rams fan.
He started his career at the Salomon Bros. investment bank after earning a degree in economics and applied mathematics from UC Berkeley and an MBA from Harvard Business School. He went on to work at Walt Disney Co. in strategic planning. He worked a variety of jobs for 11 years at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., including a year as chief executive of the troubled Gemstar-TV Guide International, which Fox then co-owned. He joined Comcast in 2004, first managing the company’s small TV channels, including E! and the Golf Channel.
Shell has overseen the Universal film studio since 2013.
“It is truly an honor to step into this role, and I am excited that Brian and the Comcast board are giving me the incredible opportunity,” Shell said in a statement. “I’m sincerely grateful to Steve, who has been an amazing boss and mentor for the last 15 years. I look forward to building on this strong track record and partnering with the many talented leaders across the company.”