Jeff Shell Wants a Job — But at Tribune, or Comcast?

The Comcast-NBCU combination is certain to initiate Hollywood’s biggest game of musical chairs in years

Comcast executive Jeff Shell’s surprising emergence as a prospective CEO of the Tribune Company may signal anxiety within the senior ranks of Comcast and NBC Universal as their proposed entertainment merger draws closer to almost certain conditional approval by year’s end.

Could it be that the possible Tribune job is a jockeying ploy by Shell, Comcast’s president of programming, to better position himself for a top spot in the joint venture?

Shell’s name — an out-of-left-field stunner in the Tribune debacle — also is among several touted as a potential top lieutenant of Steve Burke, Comcast’s No. 2 behind CEO Brian Roberts and boss-in-waiting of the sprawling company to be formed in Comcast’s $30-billion proposal to control NBC Universal.

If it were a ploy by Shell, Burke is said to be too methodical and disciplined in making decisions to fall for it.

Burke is beginning to refine the executive lineup and organizational structure of the combined company, with an announcement expected late next month, despite rumors of an early post-Labor Day press release.   

The combined company will boast a plethora of successful and ambitions executives who will want broader responsibility in a bigger company. Among some of the players: USA boss Bonnie Hammer;  Bravo chief Lauren Zalaznick; Ted Harbert, president and CEO of Comcast Entertainment Group; Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment; and Marc Graboff, co-chairman, NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio.  

Speculation, jockeying and rising anxiety, of course, should come as no surprise. The Comcast-NBCU combination is certain to initiate Hollywood’s biggest game of musical chairs in years. “When a janitor moves now, people start to buzz about what it means,” according to one whisperer at 30 Rock, NBC Universal’s headquarters.

Speculation — and a story in Sports Business Report — was ignited this week merely by a sighting of NBCU Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol at the Comcast-owned Golf Channel in Orlando. The veteran sports television executive is seen as the favorite to head a sports division that combines NBC Sports and Comcast’s Versus and Golf channels.

And the chairmanship of Universal Studios, now held by Ron Meyer, is obviously a high-profile post that the new Comcast bosses are likely to closely review.

At 44, Shell, whose name exploded into the headlines in the past 24 hours, is a media veteran, with prior stints at Disney, various News Corp. networks and Gemstar-TV Guide. If he were to quit Comcast and become CEO of Tribune, he could be reunited with former Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, who’s being wooed for the similar Tribune position after it emerges from bankruptcy.

A Comcast insider confirmed for TheWrap a published report that Shell contacted corporate headquarters in the wake of the headlines to try to assuage concern about any departure. Comcast declined to comment for this article.

He phoned and emailed in from vacation, the source said — perhaps a final nerve-calming respite before the musical chairs begins come fall.