NBCU’s New Lineup: ‘They Have Traded Up in a Big Way’

Analysis: Leading with the crowning of Bob Greenblatt, Comcast’s Steve Burke has deftly crafted his management team

"They have traded up in a very big way," a rival network executive admits of the installation of Bob Greenblatt at the head of NBC.

Indeed, after years of chicken-feed ratings, luckless primetime bosses and a corporate parent more versed in jet engines than plot lines, the Peacock network may be poised to begin a slow Phoenix-like resurgence under a new entertainment boss riding high on “Weeds” and other pay-TV hits.

Greenblatt (below right), who arrives from a successful stint as entertainment boss of Showtime, was perhaps the brightest feather in the plumage of cable, sports and corporate management announced Thursday by NBC Universal’s CEO-in-Waiting Steve Burke.

Under his seven-year reign, the distant No. 2 pay-TV network enjoyed not just a creative but a cultural renaissance, at the expense of long-dominant arch-rival HBO.

Industry observers agree that Hollywood’s best talent and projects are certain to cross his threshold and that, given NBC’s grim state, the bar is low for his success. “Bob has excellent relationships, is well respected and has a track record of quality,” the rival network chief told TheWrap.

The milestone unveiling no doubt came with tacit approval of Washington regulators. And it is the surest sign yet of their forthcoming conditional approval of Comcast’s proposed $30-billion takeover of the massive content company from GE.

Now effectively begins the integration of the two companies’ content assets — not to mention the media watch for the first signs of failure or success of entertainment’s new industrial force.

But the winds seem to be in Burke's favor. Capping weeks of leaks and frenzied speculation, the overall organizational structure and management lineup reflected his deftness at meeting the challenge of retaining the stars among Comcast’s and NBCU’s cable network executives.

Belying weeks of bitchy buzz, for example, he avoided the zero-sum outcome in which cable Queen Bees Bonnie Hammer and Lauren Zalaznick were seen to be jockeying for overall rule of the vast cable programming empire to be created in the deal. Retaining the highly regarded executives is regarded as integral to the success of the new distribution-content giant, whose crown jewel is the cable programming.   

Each is staying, with more turf to tend.

Burke solved the riddle neatly by divvying up between Hammer and Zalaznick Comcast’s entertainment networks — including E! Entertainment and Style — as well as its media-content websites such as Daily Candy and Fandango. In addition, he redistributed some of NBC Universal’s programming properties, with Hammer and Zalaznick each gaining.

To pull it off involved re-slotting one of Comcast’s long time programming executives and a Burke favorite — veteran television network executive Ted Harbert. He moves from CEO of Comcast Entertainment to NBC Universal as chairman of NBC Broadcasting in charge of broadcast advertising, affiliate relations and companywide research, among other things.

Harbert “has a longstanding relationship with Burke and Comcast, so they have a friend in court in New York to be a consigliore on the network and Hollywood business,” said another top television executive who didn’t want to be quoted by name commenting on a rival.  

In a another noteworthy appointment, Jeff Shell, president of Comcast programming, heads off to London as chairman of NBC Universal International. The post apparently satisfied his ambition for a major role in the combined company and, for now, should end speculation that he might exit Comcast, possibly to become CEO of a post-bankruptcy Tribune Co.

Burke’s lineup also includes two powerful corporate lieutenants, Patricia Fili-Krushel and PR maestro Adam Miller. The former, who is leaving Time Warner as its executive vice president, is joining NBCU as executive vice president with “a broad portfolio of functions” reporting to her at corporate headquarters, including business strategy, human resources and legal.

More importantly, however, are Fili-Krushel’s long ties to Burke, dating back to Disney or its ABC unit in the 1990s and earlier, where both were rising stars in their young careers.

Meanwhile, Miller is joining as executive vice president, corporate affairs, from Abernathy MacGregor Group, where he was the No. 2 executive and Comcast’s longtime communications advisor. One indication of his influence: To hire on at NBC Universal meant forfeiting a contractually-binding guarantee of being named CEO of Abernathy MacGregor in January.

Burke, the son of a legendary broadcast executive Dan Burke of the former CapCities/ABC, himself emerges as one of the media industry’s most formidable figures, with dual powerful roles.

Not only will he be chief of NBCU, but he also is the No. 2 executive behind Comcast CEO Brian Roberts at the world’s largest cable company and major provider of broadband and telephone service.

“While this announcement provides some clarity to some roles and responsibilities, it is only the first in what will be a series of milestones as we move into 2011,” Burke said in a statement.

In other words, as they say in television, stay tuned.