So Who Wins Saturdays in Primetime Ratings Anyway?
Steve Burke’s NBCUniversal Legacy – and How Jeff Shell’s Style Matches Up
Burke will step down next summer
NBCUniversal will be heading into the streaming era with a different man at the helm. On Thursday, word broke out that NBCU’s longtime CEO Steve Burke would be stepping down next summer, ending a nearly 10-year tenure running the media conglomerate.
And according to experts and analysts who spoke with TheWrap, Burke leaves behind a long shadow, but one that Jeff Shell, who is expected to succeed Burke, seems capable of filling. Tom Nunan, founder and partner of Bull’s Eye Entertainment and a lecturer at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, said Burke has been “an iconic figure in broadcasting for his entire career.”
“There are few people with his track record of success,” Nunan said. “He’s definitely in that elite circle that [Disney Chairman Bob] Iger is a part of and a few others.
“Frankly, I would be surprised if this is the end of his media career, because he’s still relatively young,” Nunan said, “and he comes from classic TV stock being the son of Dan Burke.” Nunan touted Burke’s “humility” as “one of his great assets.” He called Burke “a smooth operator” and “a steady hand” who “doesn’t overreact to things.”
“He’s not an attention-grabbing star executive the way that [Les] Moonves insisted on being,” Nunan said.
“[Burke] is kind of a classic, old-school executive in that regard,” Nunan said. “When I say old-school executive, I mean more from the corporate mold as opposed to the entertainment mold, which is more the impresario.”
Bob Thompson, Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, sees Burke’s legacy in the Comcast/NBCUniversal merger and the much more recent Sky deal. Thompson actually believes Burke’s greatest contribution may be an unsung one: jacking up the price of Disney’s 21st Century Fox takeover.
Thompson also offered another, less-flattering way Burke may be remembered by the general public.
“If anybody knows Steve Burke as a household name, it’s got nothing to do with all of that stuff he did to usher NBCUniversal into the Comcast era, which was a significant job, which I think he did pretty adeptly,” Thompson said. “What most lay people would remember would be his name associated with the likes of… Matt Lauer and reports by Ronan Farrow.”
Perhaps the stress of such an association and the calls for heads to roll at the top made this tough decision a little easier for Burke, Thompson wondered.
Burke’s upcoming departure is timed for next August, which would put it right after the 2020 Summer Olympics from Tokyo, which will air in the U.S. across NBCUniversal. It will also come just a few months after the launch of Peacock, NBCU’s streaming play. For one, Nunan is “surprised” by the Burke news — especially considering how close it would happen after Peacock’s debut.
“Peacock is going to become their most important venture in the next two to three years,” Nunan said. “It seems strange to me that [Burke] would walk away from building that at this time, but maybe his interests lie elsewhere.”
Whether or not Burke is still around to see Peacock take flight, Thompson’s not sure what took them so long.
“If I’m looking in the grand scheme in the history of the media, they strike me as coming kind of late to that fair,” he said. “It seems like an awful lot of people have crossed the finish line, and everybody’s off watching that stuff and nobody’s even watching the race anymore as Peacock comes waddling through.”
Thompson does not share Nunan’s surprise on Burke’s pending departure.
“It seems to be that things have been put in place, ducks have been placed in a row,” Thompson said of NBCU’s recent restructuring moves. “I don’t think it’s sending any industry people in the know into some kind or surprise tailspin or anything.”
Burke has been the only CEO NBCUniversal has known in its decade-long tenure under Comcast, which acquired NBCU from GE at the end of the last decade (though that deal did not close until 2011). While Burke has overseen NBCU during a time period of massive change for the entertainment industry — one that threatens the traditional cable model that has been the lifeblood of Comcast — he has been more than a net positive for Comcast.
NBCU revenue has grown from just above $21 billion in 2011, when he was installed as CEO, to nearly $36 billion in 2018; Comcast will report full-year earnings for 2019 next month. Under Burke, NBCUniversal bought DreamWorks Animation in 2016 for $3.8 billion. Last year, Comcast bought European pay-TV company Sky in a bidding war with 21st Century Fox.
So no pressure, Jeff. But both men believe NBCUniversal will be in fine hands with Shell. Thompson simply pointed to Shell’s successes running his current entertainment assignments.
Shell has served as chairman of the Universal film group since 2013. During his tenure leading the studio, Universal experienced four years of record profit, as well as two of the most profitable years in the studio’s 107-year history thanks, in part, to highly profitable franchises such as “Fast & Furious,” “Jurassic World” and Illumination’s “Despicable Me.” Earlier this year, Shell was was tapped to be chairman of NBCUniversal film and entertainment group, expanding his role beyond the film business to include oversight of NBC Entertainment, Telemundo and NBCU’s international operations.
That new appointment alone appeared to groom Shell for Burke’s job.
Shell is “a lot like Steve,” Nunan said. “He has a low-key style, he’s willing to stay behind the scenes, he likes to push the creative people out in front and give them credit where it’s due and give them support when they need it. That’s the hallmark that’s been handed down from Brian [Roberts, Comcast chairman and CEO] and Steve to the rest of the staff is, ‘You’re allowed to fail. You’re allowed to take big swings and if it doesn’t work, it won’t be off with your head.’”
“I suspect Jeff is just going to try to walk in Steve’s footsteps as successfully as he can,” Nunan said.