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A longtime Comcast executive, Steve Burke is expected to leave when contract ends
By Joe Flint
This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (December 14, 2019).
NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke is expected to step down by August, when his current contract expires, and his most likely successor at the media company is Universal film-and-entertainment boss Jeff Shell, people familiar with the matter said.
Mr. Burke, who also is a senior vice president of NBCUniversal parent Comcast Corp., has been planning his exit for some time after a two-decade run at the cable and entertainment giant, the people said.
The 61-year-old executive differs from many in his industry in that he hasn't shown an inclination to keep working into his late 60s or 70s. He wants to enjoy a less-stressful life, including spending more time at his lodge in Montana, said people familiar with his thinking. His father, Daniel Burke, who also was a prominent media executive, retired at 65.
As NBCUniversal chief, a position he has held since Comcast acquired control of the company in 2011, Mr. Burke oversees a sprawling operation that includes the NBC broadcast network, the Universal studio and theme parks, cable channels such as MSNBC, USA Network and Bravo and Spanish-language network Telemundo.
News of Mr. Burke's expected departure and Mr. Shell's likely promotion was reported earlier by Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.
Mr. Burke's main objectives during his remaining time at NBCUniversal are overseeing next April's launch of Peacock, the company's direct-to-consumer streaming service, and coverage of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the people familiar with the matter said. Peacock will be a relatively late entrant in a field that includes juggernauts Netflix Inc. and Walt Disney Co.'s Disney+ and Hulu, as well as Amazon.com Inc. and others.
Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports and overseer of the company's East Coast-based content businesses, also had been considered for Mr. Burke's position, according to people familiar with the matter.
A 14-year Comcast veteran, Mr. Shell has held a variety of positions including overseeing international operations and cable networks such as the company's regional sports channels. In his current post, he essentially is in charge of all entertainment content in the television and movie operations. He is described by colleagues as highly analytical, with an easygoing temperament.
Mr. Shell had no movie experience when he was handed the keys to Universal Studios in 2013, but it has had a solid run during his tenure. On his watch, the studio has had hits from mega-franchises such as "Jurassic World" and "Fast & Furious," and smaller-budget success stories including the horror film "Get Out," R-rated comedies such as "Girls Trip" and animated offerings like "The Secret Life of Pets."
Not every film strategy hatched under Mr. Shell worked. An attempt to revive Universal's classic corps of monsters, starting with Tom Cruise in a remake of "The Mummy," fizzled after that film flopped in 2017. The most recent sequel from Illumination, the animation studio behind the "Despicable Me" franchise, underwhelmed at the box office and prompted questions about the pacing of Illumination releases.
Mr. Shell would face myriad challenges as CEO. Like all broadcast networks, NBC has endured sharp rating declines over the past decade as viewers cancel pay-TV service and flock to streaming platforms. On the positive side, NBC is threatening this year to surpass CBS as the most-watched network. NBCUniversal's cable networks face similar issues. MSNBC has been a bright spot. Like other cable news channels, its ratings got a lift in recent years from interest in the coverage of Donald Trump's candidacy and administration.
The challenge for NBCUniversal and other major media companies is to continue generating enough revenue from advertising and subscription fees to maintain aggressive spending on content.
Peacock will contain of mix of original programming and a deep lineup of classics, from "Cheers" to "Frasier" to "The Office." Comcast is planning to spend $2 billion on marketing and programming for the service, which will likely have ad-supported and commercial-free options.
Mr. Burke has been with Comcast since 1998 and is close to Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts. Before joining Comcast, he spent 12 years at Disney and was a president of the company's ABC unit.
His reign as NBCUniversal CEO wasn't without controversy, especially in the news division. Matt Lauer, longtime anchor of the morning show "Today," was forced out in 2017 after an allegation of sexual assault, and critics accused the company of turning a blind eye to his conduct for years. NBC said it acted promptly after the complaint was lodged. Mr. Lauer has acknowledged a consensual sexual relationship but denied the assault allegation.
Former NBC correspondent Ronan Farrow accused NBC News of sitting on a story he was working on about movie producer Harvey Weinstein that included accusations of sexual assault. Mr. Weinstein has denied the allegations. NBC leadership has steadfastly denied it sat on the story, arguing it wasn't ready to air. Mr. Farrow ended up publishing his story in the New Yorker and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
NBC News's hiring of former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly proved to be a flop when her ratings were disappointing. She exited early this year.
Erich Schwartzel contributed to this article.
Write to Joe Flint at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 14, 2019 02:47 ET (07:47 GMT)
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