Speaking in a keynote conversation with former editor of The New Yorker Tina Brown at the Royal Television Society Conference in London on Tuesday, Burke praised the NBC Nightly News anchor and said Holt “ended up doing a very good job.”
Burke said that the whole event was “nerve-wracking” for him. He confessed to getting a copy of the debate sent to him at 4 AM London time so he could watch it as he and his colleagues were “very worried and concerned for Lester.”
“The environment is so tough right now for anybody moderating anything to try and make sure that it’s a fair debate,” he said. Burke also defended NBC Nightly News’ coverage of the election campaign, saying the channel had “done a very good job handling the election and trying to get the right issues out, but it’s a very interesting time.”
He estimated that more than 100 million people tuned into Monday night’s debate, based on top box data from Comcast’s set-top boxes, which indicated that more than 35% of homes in the U.S. were tuned into the debate.
He said that despite the current challenges of attracting a large live crowd, “people will turn out for very large live events,” pointing out that the Rio Olympics averaged 27.5 million live viewers for the company.
When Brown joked that many blame NBC for the rise of Trump thanks to his program The Apprentice, which aired on the network, Burke said the show was on the air a long time “before we showed up,” and that at the time, Trump “was an entertainer and very good at what he did in that realm.”
When questioned about whether the fall in value of UK Sterling made ITV, the UK’s largest broadcaster, an attractive acquisition for NBCUniversal, Burke quashed the notion of targeting the company. “Nothing to say there,” he said.
He added: “We have a very healthy respect for how hard it is to program a network. NBC is, you know, essentially an American company. NBC is our backyard and I think it’s very challenging to think about the network side of free-to-air broadcasting anywhere outside of the United States.”
Burke said that NBCUniversal’s UK business, which contributes around 20% of the company’s international revenue, was undoubtedly important. “We have a huge investment profile in the United Kingdom…This is a huge, huge market for us. We want to be the best place for talented people to bring their great ideas.”
Burke also pointed to the growth of the company through investment in online platforms such as BuzzFeed and Vox, key investments for the future of the business. He said that while “television is still a very good business,” he said it was “unlikely” that the TV industry would grow as much in the next 10-20 years as it had done in the last few decades. He also highlighted the acquisition of DreamWorks Animation as a key move for the company. “We think the animated film business is maybe the best part of the feature film business.”