Let’s Talk Steve Burke and where the NBCUniversal CEO may end up next

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Between all the hubbub of CES and the ongoing drama of domestic politics, there was an announcement toward the end of 2019 that got less attention than it likely should have given the importance of it’s subject and it’s implications for the media business. Steve Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal is stepping down from his role and that’s a big – freaking – deal.

Since the announcement and over a cup of hot chocolate it really started to turn in my mind that this is a somewhat breathtaking event that is getting very little ink. So to remedy that I’ve added some marshmallows to the hot chocolate and wanted to share this perspective.

Steve Burke is arguably the best media executive around today and is under-compensated compared to his peers. When the CEO of a competing cable network group can make north of $100MM in a year when Burke was earning a third of that is astounding and may be part of his reason for leaving. But let’s assume that this isn’t about money because at some juncture you have more than enough and there’s more going on under the surface.

Despite the well-choreographed succession of Jeff Shell to the CEO role and the properly well-seeded stories in the media that Steve Burke is heading to his Montana ranch and likely starting a venture fund, I find this all ludicrous. You don’t have the broad range of executive experience and success of a Steve Burke at a relatively young age (61) and just head out to pasture. You’re talking about someone who has led massive revenue growth in broadcast and cable distribution, high-speed internet connectivity, television and film, and theme park businesses. Think about that for a second, he’s led strategy and development in almost every part of the media ecosystem including selling plush toys for Disney. And it’s important to note that a lot of this experience is global, so anyone saying he isn’t likely to end up back in the media business may have too narrow (and provincial) focus.

The obvious place many have pointed to as the next stop for Burke is back home to Disney where he started his career. With the eventual retirement of Disney Chairman Bob Iger and the pitched battles within the newly combined Disney/FOX studios for control, it does seem like a potential fit. But with all the denials coming out of every corner that he’s headed for Disney I’m going to accept that this may not be in the cards. For now.

Another possible destination could be the newly combined Viacom/CBS that has been without a high profile leader since the demise of Les Moonves. This seems unlikely however since in many ways this would be a step-down and swapping a boss like Brian Roberts to work for Shari Redstone seems like the kind of thing a capable and confident executive wouldn’t do.

Yes, Steve Burke is on the Board of Directors of JP Morgan Chase, owing to his friendship with JPM CEO Jamie Diamond since their days together in the Harvard Business School class of 1986. And yes, the last time a senior Comcast executive left the company he was able to bring along $4B of Comcast money into a PE fund. But that was a CFO, a money guy, not a skilled operator like Burke. So while anything is possible it just seems like a real stretch to think that someone with this kind of Rolodex and abilities would go to the venture side just because he can. Honestly, if you knew how to fly an F-16 would you be satisfied owning 5% of an airline?

And it does seem like the departure is accelerating, with the August date put into the media back in December and more recently the announcement that operational control has already been given over to Jeff Shell as of New Year’s Eve and that his role is somewhat ceremonial until after the 2020 Summer Olympic games. So something is up, and here are a few possibilities I could see turning out for Mr. Burke:

  1. Netflix. You heard it here first. As the OTT space matures and with large studios pulling back their content into branded subscription services Netflix is going to need a really, really good content and operations person to make the big bets. Also, someone to negotiate with the cable broadband folks around bandwidth and distribution partnerships
  2. Verizon Wireless. Another left-field thought but don’t dismiss it just yet. Despite the failure go Go90 and other wireless plays, it’s likely that partnering with Disney+ for the launch of its service was a laboratory for them to see just how valuable they are to the content side. It’s easy to imagine Steve Burke owning a large portfolio at VZ with a lot of budget to work with. And given what 5G is going to mean for the wireless industry, someone with his capacity to see around corners is likely looking this over.
  3. Liberty Global. The LGI businesses are broad and diverse, everything from Caribbean Telcos to the global rights to Formula One racing. That said, if I’m John Malone (I love saying that…) and I can get Steve to come in and align a lot of these properties as he did between Comcast and NBC, that’s a slam dunk.

Of course, none of these potential scenarios may come to pass, and Mr. Burke may well spend his days thoughtfully considering the big skies of Montana. But it’s more likely he’ll resurface in a place you don’t expect today and will realize later was a natural fit for his rare abilities.

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