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Getting with the program

24 September 2010 By Jeffrey Goldfarb

Comcast reckons it s ready for prime time. The U.S. cable giant has edged out Jeff Zucker, the chief executive of NBC Universal, and a man with nearly a quarter century under his belt at the flagship network. In his place, Comcast is likely to install Steve Burke, its own well-regarded chief operating officer. But both the company and the man are unproven in programming.

The move is neither unconventional nor unexpected. CEOs of takeover targets are routinely handed their walking papers in favor of the buyer s handpicked leader. And Zucker s preference for the spotlight was never seen as a particularly good fit with Comcast s more subdued culture and Burke s understated approach. Of course, they ll need to adapt in this regard as Comcast emerges from its comfort zone of laying cable to the glare of Hollywood.

Zucker didn t exactly make it on merit either. He parlayed his role as a wunderkind producer at the Today morning show into the top job. Zucker s lieutenants managed to build on the successes of cable networks USA, Bravo and CNBC. And he personally got credit for incremental innovations like extending Friends episodes by 10 minutes to keep viewers from changing channels. But his baby, NBC, proved a lead weight.

The network was last in total audience in the season that ended in May, requiring a redoubling of investment to develop new programming. That followed Zucker s costly decision to move Jay Leno out of late-night, which hurt local news broadcasts and drove away one of its biggest stars, Conan O Brien. And since he took over at NBC Universal from Bob Wright a few years ago, profit has tumbled nearly 30 percent.

Burke s broad credentials are impressive. He was once an heir apparent at Michael Eisner s Disney before his surprise departure for Comcast more than a decade ago. But he s known more as a savvy financier and operator than as a creative whizz. His employer can t boast much more. Among its great gifts to couch potatoes everywhere is the hunting and hockey broadcaster Versus.

Comcast is joining the media mogul ranks at a reasonable price. But very much unlike the more utility-like cable business, NBC Universal depends on nurturing the egos of talent and consistently producing hits. Like so many TV critics, Comcast and Burke may find it easier to find fault with someone like Zucker than to fill his shoes.

 

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