Meet Steve Burke: The Exorcist for What Ails NBCU

He won’t suffer sycophants or loose lips. Says Warren Buffett: “He’s got everything you want in an executive.” He'll need it.

 

Steve Burke’s arrival atop NBC Universal – announced Sunday, as if it were ever really in doubt – likely became a fait accompli back in January, when he and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts took their first tour of the company’s West Coast operations.

Their guide: Jeff Zucker. The context: News of the Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien meltdown had just broken.

Not only did the incident overshadow the visit, but the whole affair — the leaks, the media sniping, the lack of candor, the inability to solve the crisis — starkly revealed for Burke the vast gulf between the two corporations’ cultures, top confidantes of Comcast have told TheWrap.

At the risk of breaching securities regulations by interfering, Burke could only gingerly offer advice and shake his head as the trainwreck worsened.

When the debacle finally ended with a $30 million payment to Conan and his release from NBC, the Comcast executive was relieved. And puzzled.

Why hadn’t NBC tried – or even explored – an offer for O’Brien to move to one of NBC’s cable siblings, which include USA and Bravo? As it is now, Conan will debut on rival Time Warner’s TBS.

Paying O’Brien millions to walk away from an uncomfortable situation just doesn’t square with the pragmatic, straight-shooting ethos by which Burke has come to be known. And that Hollywood desperately hopes he'll bring to NBC Universal.

“For the same reasons I was delighted to have him join Berkshire [Hathaway’s] board (last December), NBC Universal ought to be delighted to have Steve oversee that operation,” said Warren Buffett, a longtime Burke friend, in an exclusive interview earlier this year. “He’s got everything you want in an executive. He’s high-grade. He’s smart. His judgment is good.”

And as shocking as it may be in the bottled-scorpion world of media, Burke won’t suffer sycophants among the chief lieutenants whom he will tap in the coming weeks, say his business associates inside and outside of Comcast. Nor will loose lips, lack of candor, back-stabbing or sugar-coating of problems be tolerated.

Straightforward business practices, accountability with fairness, mutual respect and prudent risk-taking will be the order of the day, these people insist.

In short, at a time of wrenching transformation in media, the success of the Comcast-NBCU marriage will depend all the more on Burke’s ability to exorcise a troubling corporate culture at NBC Universal.

Exemplified by the “Late Night” gambit, the “managing for margins” philosophy took root as GE tightened the financial reins throughout its far-flung businesses. Pressure to deliver rising quarterly financial results through willy-nilly and deepening cost cuts took a toll, as did years of failed efforts to lift its namesake NBC broadcast network out of fourth place.

In place of short-term financial myopia and corporate jockeying, Burke must introduce a culture that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever worked at Comcast — straightforward practices and strategic focus. His approach is a blend of the studied practices gleaned at Harvard Business School and the old-fashioned lessons of his father, Dan Burke, the former president of Capital Cities, a station-group owner that later acquired ABC before the combined company was acquired by Disney in 1995.

The Philadelphia-based Comcast hardly projects Hollywood glitz — on the contrary, it exudes a blandness that has already been spoofed on the NBC sitcom “30 Rock” as “Kabletown” with a “K.” But to careful observers, the core competency is evident.

“I’ve also seen that Comcast is very strategic and smart in its decision,” says Anita Elberse, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who authored a case study on Comcast’s ground-breaking video-on-demand service.

So far, Burke’s charges-in-waiting at NBC Universal have garnered only the most superficial impression of what’s to come.

“They say all the right things,” a senior executive said. “They’ve been terrific. They say they are excited about having the businesses.” This executive adds: “Culturally, they sound like really good people. I think they care about people as opposed to just process.”

With anxiety peaking last Friday following the announcement of Zucker’s imminent exit, Burke was said to have spent the day at NBC Universal’s headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Center, seeking to calm nerves and assure everyone in the hierarchy that things would be OK — without revealing much. “Poker face” is a common description of Burke by NBC Universal insiders.

And yet, they’ve had plenty of time to try to glean hints. Every Wednesday for months now, Burke and Michael Angelakis, Comcast chief financial officer, have boarded an Amtrak train at Philly’s 30th Street Station bound for New York for planning sessions.

While NBCU’s employees may be clueless, some of his confidants claim to be familiar with some of his thinking.

For example, some say he has considered giving Comcast cable subscribers on-demand access to NBC’s entire nightly lineup immediately after airing the shows – a radical idea that isn’t entirely new. Comcast considered the move years ago in a bid to thwart or slow demand for DVRs, which are costly for the cable giant to deploy. According to people close to Burke, he surmises that NBC’s rivals would to have to consider matching such a move were the Peacock network to do it.

Over gatherings at the Sea Grill restaurant in the bowels of headquarters, Burke also apparently got an earful from NBC Universal executives about the company’s dysfunction. But his fans say he’s not all too concerned about how to banish it; after all, he’s been preparing for his arrival at the top of media almost from birth.

Any profile of Burke, for example, would be incomplete without the story of how over dinner the discussions often turned to Nielsen ratings. Dan Burke showed a flair for corporate culture at Capital Cities, especially after it acquired and integrated ABC in the mid-1980s. In his early professional life at Disney, Steve Burke also learned a thing or two about creating positive corporate cultures from Michael Eisner, whose tenure was enormously successful for years before he faltered.

By then, Burke, who’s Disney highlights included launching The Disney Stores, had departed, landing at Comcast after Roberts recruited him in 1998. At the time, Comcast was a mere cable operator with four million subscribers and big ambitions. With Roberts handling strategy and Burke running operations, the company became a juggernaut.

It culminated in 2002, with Comcast’s $52-billion acquisition of AT&T Broadband. Burke distinguished himself by successfully handling the massive integration.

A former employee described the Roberts-Burke duo as “a good tag-team” and Burke as an “extremely competent operator” who doesn’t like overdone Power-point presentations, preferring his colleagues to “talk to me like a human being.”

That about nails the concensus among almost anyone who has been in his professional orbit: “I pegged him right away – hard-working, extremely creative, funny and with a quick wit,” says JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who first noticed the traits during their early days at Harvard School of Business in 1980.

Burke is a member of the giant bank’s board, where Dimon relies on his advice on new products and services. “He’ll have great ideas for NBC Universal,” the banking executive says.

If he doesn’t, it apparently will be a new experience for him — in which case, Burke, an avid fly fisherman, may have plenty of free time to scout Wyoming’s back country for plentiful catches.

Perhaps Zucker would join him.