Daniel Burke dies at 82; former president of Capital Cities/ABC


Daniel Burke, considered one of the architects of the modern television industry and a former president and chief executive of Capital Cities/ABC, died Wednesday. He was 82.

He died at his home in Rye, N.Y., of complications from type 1 diabetes, according to his family.

Burke spent more than 30 years at CapCities, rising from manager of its television station in Albany, N.Y., to chief executive. Working closely with Tom Murphy, the chairman of CapCities, the duo transformed the company from a handful of TV stations into a broadcasting and publishing giant. In 1986, Murphy and Burke engineered the then-stunning purchase of the ABC network for $3.5 billion. Burke retired in 1994, two years before the company was sold to Walt Disney Co.

Burke “shaped the culture of the company, with an emphasis on accountability, directness, irreverence and community service,” Murphy said in a statement, adding that he had a “wicked sense of humor that made every day more fun.”

The partnership between Murphy and Burke was the envy of the media business. Both were low-key executives in an industry known for big egos, and they managed to work together without significant clashes. While Murphy focused on the long-term strategy and Burke ran the day-to-day operations, both were seen as tough managers with an eye toward the bottom line.

When CapCities took over ABC, it was a time of tremendous change in the television industry. NBC was acquired by General Electric Co. and CBS taken over by investor Lawrence Tisch about the same time. All three new owners dramatically cut costs and staff at the networks, particularly in the news divisions.

The transition at ABC went much more smoothly under Murphy and Burke than it did at the other networks. Tisch and General Electric were seen as outsiders with little knowledge of the television business’ inner workings and were constantly second-guessed by critics. Murphy and Burke had been running a successful media company for decades and were credited with making ABC more efficient and profitable.

“A gifted executive and natural teacher, and a man with a strong sense of right and wrong” is how Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert Iger described Burke. Iger rose up the ranks of ABC under Burke.

Born Feb. 4, 1929, Burke was an Albany native and Korean War veteran. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Vermont and an MBA from Harvard. After graduating from Harvard, he spent five years at General Foods before being recruited by Murphy to run the CapCities station in Albany.

After retiring, Burke, an avid baseball fan, founded a minor-league team in Portland, Maine.

Burke also served as a director of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and chairman emeritus of New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Business smarts ran in Burke’s family; his older brother James was a chief executive at Johnson & Johnson. Two of Burke’s sons followed him into the media industry; Steve Burke is chief executive of NBCUniversal, and Bill Burke is a former senior executive at Turner Broadcasting who co-wrote media mogul Ted Turner’s autobiography.

Other survivors include Burke’s wife of 54 years, Harriet, son Frank, daughter Sally McNamara and 14 grandchildren.