Comcast's Steve Burke has landed in the middle of an old-fashioned
network drama at NBCUniversal
Brian Stelter, a young reporter who covers the television industry for
The New York Times, has been tweeting a countdown to the publication
of his new book about morning television.
There are even rumors that one of the reasons the bosses at NBC are
talking about getting rid of Matt Lauer at Today might have to do with
revelations in this book.
New York magazine, which can make and break media careers, had a cover
story last week about Lauer and the now epochal reports of the
backstabbing of Ann Curry, his co-anchor who got the network's shiv.
It is so operatic and breathless that you might think Matt Lauer was
in the middle of a sex scandal — or that we had been transported back
a generation when the goings-on in network television were seismic
instead of, nowadays, a side show.
Indeed, when Comcast, the cable operating system company, bought NBC
from General Electric two years ago, the speculation was that it might
sell the perennially lagging NBC network and concentrate on the cable
properties. Instead, Comcast's Steve Burke, whose father once ran ABC
and who was given responsibility for NBCUniversal (network, cable
stations, movie studio), has found himself in the middle of an old-
fashioned network drama — and losing control of the plot.
And it is not just the morning. He's in trouble at night too. Just
like his predecessor, Jeff Zucker — whom Burke fired in part for
trying unsuccessfully to maneuver Jay Leno — Burke now finds himself …
trying to maneuver Jay Leno.
What's wrong with this picture?
Not long after Comcast took over NBC, The New York Times' Bill Carter,
long thought to be the last faithful chronicler of network television
(until the Times' Stelter came along), wrote of Burke: "His experience
and personality are the antithesis of what NBC represents: He is not a
programmer, has no experience in news and avoids playing corporate
feuds in the press."
In other words, he wasn't a network television guy and therefore could
be expected to avoid all of the hopeless, public, no-win and bad-press
pitfalls in which he finds himself now.
His boss, Brian Roberts, whose family owns the controlling shares in
Comcast, is a famously bloodless stuffed shirt and even less a network
sort of fellow. And yet, because Comcast is a top-down, control-minded
company, Roberts can be assumed to be as deep and as flailing in the
network mess as Burke.
In fact, the overriding question ought not to be about the fates of
Matt Lauer or Jay Leno, but a more confounding one: Why is it again
that Comcast bought NBC and what exactly does the cable giant hope to
do with it?
That merger, completed in 2011, is actually a little like the Lauer
brouhaha — it feels like something from another decade. Media
companies aren't trying to buy businesses they don't understand
anymore; they're trying to get rid of them.
Indeed, with NBC bringing up the network bottom and the entertainment
business ever more challenged by changing technologies, even the old
synergy argument seemed awfully hapless this time around.
Comcast's more transparent motivation was that, having built about as
large a cable company as it could build, it felt it ought to get more
credit and have more sizzle. It is the oldest story: The drab guys
(and I mean drab) wanted action. NBC represented for the anodyne MBAs
at Comcast (who in 2004 tried to buy Disney unsuccessfully): show
business. Your name in lights. (Banker Jonathan Knee analyzes the
financial and management fallacies of this syndrome in the book The
Curse of the Moguls.)
Of course, Roberts and Burke see themselves as rational and even
coldhearted managers (The New York Times profile of Burke says, he
"takes time to warm up to others") ready to take on the glamour
It must have felt to Roberts and Burke as they considered balancing
the future downside of Leno with the rising trajectory of Jimmy
Fallon, and of reversing the ratings dip at Today by swapping Lauer
for CNN's Anderson Cooper, that they only had to move their chess
pieces. No doubt, they were conscious too that Jeff Zucker, who had
built the Today powerhouse and is now at CNN, had counter moves. They
were in the game.
In fact, Roberts and Burke are straightforward guys. "He's very
direct. There's very little beating around the bush," said Sony
Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton about Burke in Carter's
But television is a business all about the "talent." And the talent
must be massaged and handled and finessed. Directness is not
necessarily a virtue. Beating around the bush is the skill — that is,
wheeling and dealing and talking from both sides of your mouth. Or, if
necessary, sometimes a dead-of-night attack will do. But the drawn-out
considerations of men with no apparent human feelings, or at least not
tact and charm, isn't how you get by in television and avoid the
firestorm of press and gossip that will ultimately make your decisions
This is what people are starting to say: Maybe even GE was a better
owner of NBC than Comcast.
And, don't fire Leno or Lauer. Fire Steve Burke.
Unmentioned in the article as a motivation for Comcast buying NBC:
They wanted to lend the cachet of the NBC name, as well as the
bargaining chip of being able to put games on the broadcast network,
to the then-Versus channel. More than just that, they wanted to stable
of high-successful cable channels that NBC-U had acquired/developed.