NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke to Retire in August 2020

Departure coincides with the end of contract as network names Jeff Shell as replacement

Jeff Shell, right, will replace Steve Burke as CEO of NBCUniversal in January 2020.
Jeff Shell, right, will replace Steve Burke as CEO of NBCUniversal in January 2020. Courtesy of NBCUniversal

NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke will leave the company in August 2020, just months after he sees through the anticipated launch of the broadcaster’s streaming service Peacock, the company confirmed this morning.

The longtime Comcast executive, who has headed up the media and entertainment conglomerate since Comcast acquired the company in 2011, will step aside as CEO beginning Jan. 1, 2020, and will become chairman of the company. Burke will exit the company entirely on Aug. 14, 2020, immediately following the conclusion of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, to which NBCUniversal holds broadcast rights.

Jeff Shell, the chairman of NBCUniversal Film and Entertainment, will take the reins as CEO at the beginning of next year and will report to Burke until his departure, at which point Shell will report directly to Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts.

“I cannot thank Steve enough for the incredible impact he has had on this entire company,” Roberts said in a statement. “I will miss Steve’s trusted partnership, and I know I speak for both myself and my late father Ralph when I say that we will be forever grateful to him for shaping first Comcast and then NBCUniversal into the great companies they are today. When Comcast acquired NBCUniversal in 2011, I never imagined it would become the fastest growing media company. Steve’s leadership and the team that he built has had everything to do with this outstanding performance.”

Burke has been at Comcast for more than two decades. In his current role, Burke, 61, has overseen everything from the company’s broadcast and cable arms to its Universal-branded theme parks. Prior to his position as head of NBCUniversal, Burke was Comcast’s chief operating officer. He previously served as president of Comcast’s cable division.

“While this has been a dream job, it has always been my plan to hand off the baton at the right moment and move on to the next chapter of my life, where I can pursue a different set of interests,” Burke said in a statement. “It is great to know I am leaving the company in terrific hands with Jeff, who is the right leader to usher in the next phase of growth and success for NBCUniversal.”

"While this has been a dream job, it has always been my plan to hand off the baton at the right moment and move on to the next chapter of my life where I can pursue a different set of interests."
Steve Burke, CEO, NBCUniversal

Burke’s departure from the company coincides with the end of his contract, which expires in August. News of his expected departure first began percolating last week with reports from Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.

Burke’s biggest task prior to his departure will be to oversee the launch of Peacock, NBCUniversal’s ambitious but somewhat belated entrant into an already crowded streaming space dominated by services like Netflix and Hulu. The service, which is slated to debut in April, will contain some of NBCUniversal’s deep well of library content, including its ultra-popular comedy The Office, which has required the company to alter its strategy of licensing out much of its television programming to streaming services for a tidy sum.

The pricing for Peacock hasn’t been detailed, although it will almost certainly contain both ad-supported and ad-free tiers. According to CNBC NBCUniveral has reportedly considered making Peacock free and ad-supported for all viewers and give Comcast customers additional perks, CNBC reported in November; NBCUniversal is planning an investor day in mid-January to share more information about the upcoming service.

Shell, who has been with Comcast for 14 years, has overseen programming and distribution across the company’s film and television businesses, and previously served as chairman of Universal’s film. He will take over the media giant at a critical point in the company’s history as it aims to find its footing in streaming while suffering steady ratings declines on linear television as consumer habits have shifted to favor on-demand viewing and U.S. customers increasingly opt to cut the cord.

“It is truly an honor to step into this role, and I am excited that Brian and the Comcast board are giving me the incredible opportunity to help steer the future of NBCUniversal,” Shell said in a statement. “I’m sincerely grateful to Steve, who has been an amazing boss and mentor for the last 15 years and leaves behind an extraordinary legacy of visionary leadership and success. I look forward to building on this strong track record and partnering with the many talented leaders across the company.”

Burke oversaw NBCUniversal during a period of growth at the company. He helped engineer the $3.8 billion acquisition of the animation studio DreamWorks in 2016, which helped bolster NBCUniversal’s Universal Parks theme parks business and its film studio success. On the broadcast side, NBCUniversal has increasingly emphasized its live offerings, including sports, and Burke in 2014 locked down the rights to air the Olympics through 2032. The 2020 Summer Olympics, which are to take place in Tokyo, have already attracted $1 billion in ad sales eight months out, the company said last week.

Under Burke’s tenure, the company has also made strides in the ratings game, with NBC News gaining on CBS in broadcast and properties like MSNBC and USA finding success on the cable side.

But Burke’s tenure at NBCUniversal has not been without its blemishes. The company this year has faced sustained scrutiny for its handling of disgraced NBC News anchor Matt Lauer, who was ousted for inappropriate sexual conduct in 2017. This year, former NBC reporter Ronan Farrow published a book that fueled allegations that NBC brass blocked Farrow’s reporting on disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and covered up allegations against Lauer. NBC News has aggressively denied Farrow’s claims.

Burke also greenlit the ill-fated tenure of former Fox News host Megyn Kelly at the network, which ended after less than a year and a half after her first on-air appearance. NBC paid out the remainder of her three-year contract with the network in early 2019.

@kelseymsutton kelsey.sutton@adweek.com Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.