NBC chief stepping down: Report

Universal Studios boss Jeff Shell reportedly is replacing Steve Burke

After more than 20 years with Comcast, Steve Burke is reportedly leaving the company and stepping down as CEO of NBCUniversal, which is owned by the cable giant.

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Variety is reporting exclusively Thursday night that Burke will be replaced by another Comcast veteran, Jeff Shell, sometime before August of 2020, when Burke’s contract expires. The move comes almost a year after a shake-up in NBC’s executive ranks, which The Hollywood Reporter said set up an “executive showdown” between Shell and NBC Sports Chief Mark Lazarus.

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Shell, chairman of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, was put in charge of NBC Entertainment, Spanish language Telemundo and all international operations. Former Turner executive Mark Lazarus was named the chairman of NBCUniversal broadcast, cable, sports and news, putting him in charge of everything from the NBC TV network to E! and MSNBC.

Burke, 60, told The Reporter that it was not a face-off but "is primarily about setting ourselves up for OTT and giving [Shell and Lazarus] more responsibility." Comcast and NBCUniversal are launching a new streaming service, Peacock, in April of 2020. It is possible Burke will stay until that service is launched and depart thereafter claiming victory.

Before joining Comcast in 1998, Burke was with The Walt Disney Company where he oversaw Euro Disney and served as President of ABC Broadcasting. ABC had become something of the family business. Burke’s late father Dan was the former CEO of Capital Cities/ABC and the architect of one of the most audacious mergers ever. In 1985 regional broadcasting company Capital Cities – with the backing of Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett – bought the American Broadcasting Company, home of the ABC television network, ESPN and several other major media properties. Capital Cities/ABC merged with The Walt Disney Company on February 9, 1996.

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According to The Reporter, Burke has seen NBCUniversal revenues increase steadily during his watch hitting  $35.8 billion in 2018. Burke made $39.9 million in 2018, according to regulatory filings. But it may feel like money well earned given some of the headaches he has had to manage including:

  • The failure of Megyn Kelly’s talk show who was lured away from Fox News with a $69 million contract. “I went over and told (Kelly) she should come here,” Burke told Variety, “In hindsight we shouldn’t have done it.”
  • The 2017 firing of “Today” host Matt Lauer after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.
  • In his new book "Catch and Release" former NBC News reporter and MSNBC host Ronan Farrow charged that Burke was warned about problems of sexual abuse at NBC News as early as 2015, two years before anchor Lauer's firing. NBC has said these and other allegations Farrow has made in his book are false.
  • In 2015, he had to remove personal friend, NBC Nightly news anchor, Brian Williams, who admitted to fabricating details about his experiences covering combat in Iraq.

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As for Shell, a former executive with Fox and Disney, he joined Comcast in 2004 as President of the Comcast Programming Group where he was responsible for managing Comcast’s portfolio of cable channels including E! Entertainment Network, the Golf Channel and the Comcast Regional Sports Networks Group among others. In 2011, he took charge of Universal Studio and Comcast’s movie business – despite little experience in film development or production.

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Shell has been seen as a steady influence in the volatile world of movie-making. During his time on the movie lot, the studio twice crossed the $5 billion mark in the global box office. So far this year, Universal ranks third in box office gross with $1.2 billion behind Disney and Warner Bros.

NBCUniversal declined to comment to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter on Shell's ascension and FOX Business was unable to obtain an official comment as well.

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This story was updated from a previous edition to include background on the careers of Steve Burke and Jeff Shell