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For Steve Burke, Comcast job is the role of his life

The Comcast chief operating officer's resume and bloodlines prepare him for the task of making a union with NBC Universal work.

December 03, 2009|By Meg James
  • Comcast Corp. Chief Operating Officer Steve Burke, left, strolls with CBS Corp. President Leslie Moonves at the Allen & Co. media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 2006.
Comcast Corp. Chief Operating Officer Steve Burke, left, strolls with… (Elaine Thompson / Associated…)

Comcast Corp.'s plan to take control of entertainment giant NBC Universal -- expected to be announced this morning -- will crown Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts as Hollywood's newest mogul, even though Roberts lives and works in Philadelphia.

But the complex task of meshing the disparate businesses into a single, efficient company will fall to Roberts' chief lieutenant, Steve Burke.

Burke, Comcast's chief operating officer, will be charged with running a transformed company. In addition to providing cable television, Internet and telephone service, Comcast also will produce movies and TV shows; program cable channels, TV stations and a venerable broadcast network; and manage a worldwide news-gathering operation and theme parks.

Such corporate titans as Time Warner Inc. and General Electric Co. -- which is selling control of NBC Universal to Comcast -- have been confounded by similar management challenges. And another media mega-conglomerate produced by the marriage of Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp. eventually split into two separate companies.

The advantage that Comcast may have over others is that the executive in charge of making all the parts fit has a background in the business. Indeed, Burke, who spent a dozen years in key positions at Walt Disney Co. before joining Comcast, has been training for his new role for much of his life.

People who have worked closely with the 51-year-old Burke describe him as a straight shooter who comes from one of America's most prominent business families. His father, Dan Burke, was a lion of broadcasting, one of the two architects of the legendary Capital Cities TV station group that gobbled up ABC and later sold the company to Disney.

Steve Burke's uncle, James Burke, was chairman of Johnson & Johnson during the deadly 1982 Tylenol scare, and his aunt, Phyllis Davis, was one of the first top female executives in the country, rising to a senior position at cosmetics company Avon.

"Growing up, we knew these businesspeople who were very principled and ethical, and they made business seem like a worthy endeavor," said William Burke, Steve's younger brother, who worked at Turner Broadcasting and then ran the Weather Channel before moving to Maine, where he recently co-wrote "Call Me Ted" with Ted Turner.

Dinner talk at the Burke home, where Steve was the oldest of four children, often centered around TV ratings and other industry intricacies. "It wasn't like we were being groomed to follow in our dad's footsteps," William Burke said. "But we all naturally gravitated to media because it is a fascinating business."

Steve Burke graduated from Colgate University, then earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in the same class as GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt, who is now ready to hand control of NBC Universal to Comcast.

Under the proposed deal, Comcast would contribute about $6 billion in cash and its cable television channels, including E, Versus and nine regional sports networks, in exchange for 51% ownership of the new joint entity. GE would provide NBC Universal, receive about $9 billion, which the new entity would take on as debt, and retain 49%.

Federal regulators will have to sign off on the merger, a lengthy process that could take at least a year. Then Burke would be in charge, becoming the boss of NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker.

Burke and Zucker offer a study in contrasts.

The former has been happy in a supporting role, while the latter has grabbed the spotlight since he became executive producer of NBC's "Today" show at 26. Zucker championed Katie Couric into a media star, and rocketed through the ranks to become head of the company two years ago at 41. More recently, however, Zucker is most identified with his gambit to shift Jay Leno's show to 10 p.m. The move has produced paltry ratings, hurt local news and damaged the network's signature "Tonight Show."

Once Comcast takes over, Burke will be responsible for major decisions, including the allocation of resources and figuring out how to restore to profitability such key assets as the Universal Pictures studio and the NBC broadcast network, the latter expected to lose more than $500 million this year, according to three people familiar with the company's finances.

Those who know Burke say he's equally at ease making creative decisions as well as financial ones. Even though Burke has never held a programming job, it would be unfair to tag him as only an operations manager, said Paul Pressler, a former top executive at Disney who is now with a private equity firm.

"Steve is one of those unique entertainment executives who understands and appreciates both the operational side of the business as well as the creative process," Pressler said.

Burke has declined to talk publicly while the deal is pending.

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