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Comcast Names Burke to Succeed Zucker to Revive NBC

Stephen Burke
Stephen B. Burke, incoming chief executive officer of NBC Universal. Source: Comcast Corp. via Bloomberg

Comcast Corp. Chief Operating Officer Stephen Burke will succeed Jeff Zucker as chief executive officer of NBC Universal, taking over the effort to revive the television company once Comcast has control.

Burke, 52, will take his new post after Comcast completes its purchase of a majority stake in NBC, Comcast and NBC parent General Electric Co. said yesterday in a statement. Other personnel or structural changes won’t be announced “until the deal closing process and timing is certain,” the companies said.

The challenge for Burke is to boost ratings at NBC, which trails CBS Corp., New Corp.’s Fox and Walt Disney Co.’s ABC, while helping the combination of cable operator and broadcast network contribute to earnings at Comcast. Investors will be looking for better programming and increased advertising revenue, said Christopher King, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in Baltimore.

“We’ve never had a merger of this size that impacts content and distribution,” King said. “The marriage of Comcast and NBC will hold challenges for both companies. Burke’s job is to generate excitement around NBC and that is something that has been lacking, especially in primetime.”

The planned $28 billion combination of Comcast and New York-based NBC Universal would give Comcast, the largest U.S. cable company, control of NBC’s TV network and broadcast stations, as well as cable channels such as USA Network and Bravo. NBC Universal also owns a film studio and theme parks.

Comcast is expected to complete its purchase of 51 percent of NBC Universal by year-end, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt said in an internal memo Sept. 24 announcing Zucker’s departure.

TV-Network Experience

Burke joined Philadelphia-based Comcast in 1998 from Disney, where he was president of ABC Broadcasting. He helped lead the integration of AT&T Corp.’s cable unit into Comcast’s businesses ahead of schedule following the $56 billion purchase in 2002.

“Steve Burke is an experienced, talented and visionary leader with over 25 years in the media and entertainment industry,” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in yesterday’s statement. “I am confident that he will lead NBCU forward to a new era of growth.”

Roberts drew on Burke’s experience at ABC when Comcast in 2004 made a $54.1 billion offer to buy Disney. Burke and Roberts scrapped the plan after Comcast shares slid 12 percent and Burbank, California-based Disney’s board rejected the offer as too low.

Comcast continued to pursue programming, and the company unveiled its bid to take over NBC Universal last year. Burke has said that combining content with distribution would help fuel growth at Comcast.

Leno Protests

Zucker spent his entire working career at NBC, starting as a researcher in 1986 for coverage of the 1988 Seoul Olympics and becoming executive producer of the “Today” show at age 26. He rose to oversee all of NBC Universal in 2007 -- the broadcast network, the Universal Pictures film studio, theme parks and cable channels.

His tenure was marred by falling ratings at NBC, which failed to develop new hits as popular shows like “Friends” left the air. His decision to put comedian Jay Leno in prime time backfired by cutting the 11 p.m. audience for local news and sparking protests from NBC’s affiliate TV stations.

Zucker, 45, will work with Burke to ensure a “smooth leadership transition” until the acquisition by Comcast is completed, according to the statement.

While Zucker’s career was at NBC, Burke’s experience is more varied. He sits on the board of JPMorgan Chase & Co., the second-biggest U.S. bank, and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. named Burke a director last year as the company works on a succession plan for Chairman Warren Buffett.

When appointing Burke, Buffett called him “business-savvy” and “owner-oriented.”

Comcast fell 26 cents, or 1.4 percent, to $18.31 at 4 p.m. New York time in Nasdaq Stock Market trading. The shares have risen 8.6 percent this year.

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