Steve Burke will depart as CEO of NBCUniversal next year, sources confirmed to Deadline, after a mostly successful decade operating a major media entity as it was absorbed by the No. 1 U.S. cable operator.
Burke, whose current contract ends in August 2020, had recently been telling close associates that he planned to retire. While the end of his contract coincides with the end of the 2020 Olympics, the biggest sporting event on NBCUniversal, some sources indicate that he may depart before that, as early as the first quarter of 2020.
There is no official word on a successor but speculation is that Jeff Shell, Chairman of NBCUniversal Film and Entertainment, would be named new NBCUniversal CEO. When Burke implemented a restructuring in January of 2019, he waved away rumors of his impending exit, insisting to Deadline and other media outlets, “I’m not going anywhere.” Shell and Mark Lazarus, who became Chairman of NBCU Broadcast, Cable, Sports and News, became Burke’s key lieutenants and internal heirs apparent.
In that reorg, Shell expanded his oversight to add NBC Entertainment, Telemundo and NBCU International to Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. Getting a vast portfolio encompassing film and TV was considered a preparation for the NBCU CEO post. One senior exec indicated Thursday that Shell had distinguished himself with his tour of duty, which has included roles focused on international, the resurgent film studio and TV.
Senior-level NBCU execs Deadline spoke with say the changing of the guard with Burke could be one of many changes to the company’s management team in the new year. With the impending arrival of the Peacock streaming service, the org chart is likely to reflect that new business objective.
Burke, previously COO of Comcast, has been CEO of NBCUniversal since Comcast acquired the company in 2011. His contract was last extended in 2016 through August 2020. Prior to joining Comcast, Burke was at Disney, rising to President of ABC Broadcasting.
Peacock, a major new player on the streaming landscape, will debut in April as a free, ad-supported service for Comcast subscribers at at various other pay tiers with pricing to be determined. Burke will preside over an investor day in January, when more details about the offering will be revealed. Peacock will join a crowded field, with Disney+ and Apple TV+ newly out this fall and WarnerMedia readying subscription service HBO Max for a May launch.
Burke’s victories have been many — the revival of Universal Pictures, which thrived on franchises like Jurassic Park and The Fast and the Furious and nurtured a breakout in-house animation shop in Illumination; and the equally impressive turnaround at NBC. A fifth-place network as the decade began, NBC has ridden Sunday Night Football, This is Us and The Voice to capture top honors among viewers 18-49 several times. The Olympics, already a powerhouse property when Burke came aboard, has become a long-term cash generator for NBCU and Comcast. The company said it has already booked $1 billion in ad revenue for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo and is ahead of the pace for the 2016 Rio Games, which brought in a record $1.2 billion.
At the same time, Burke has had several challenges, including the pending $20 billion lawsuit by Byron Allen now before the U.S. Supreme Court. The suit alleges that minority-aimed properties controlled by Allen were mistreated by Comcast Cable compared to white-owned networks. The company also has had a series of issues involving NBC News, including the ouster of former Today anchor Matt Lauer after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, and the marginalization of former lead NBC anchor Brian Williams.
Burke personally mediated the Williams situation, which centered on the former anchor’s penchant for telling tall tales, including about his experience in military settings, which eventually came to light because of the pique of some veterans’ groups. After suspending Williams, Burke approved his return to the airwaves on MSNBC, where he now hosts a late-night show and is involved in special coverage.
Burke has been more sparing than some executives in recent years in terms of appearances in public settings, but has become a fixture on Comcast’s quarterly earnings calls. The company will next report quarterly numbers on January 23.
The news of Burke’s pending departure from NBCUniversal was first reported by Variety.