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A Little Less Drama at NBC

Tim Arango and Bill Carter |The New York Times
Thursday, 27 Jan 2011 | 8:01 AM ET

On Thursday, from Studio 6B in Rockefeller Center, home of “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” the NBC anchor Brian Williams will officially introduce the network’s newest boss, Stephen B. Burke, in a closed-circuit presentation to the entire company.

Every one of the company’s 27,000 employees will also be given a coffee table book, “NBCUniversal and Comcast: A Century in the Making,” that interweaves the companies’ histories. Yet Mr. Burke’s real “welcome to NBC” moment came six days ago with the ouster of the MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann, a classic NBC episode of infighting, secret negotiations and the splashing of internal gossip across the press.

Steve Burke, Comcast's Chief Operating Officer
Getty Images
Steve Burke, Comcast's Chief Operating Officer

For years, NBC’s own internal dramas were often more compelling than anything it offered viewers — from the Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien fiasco to Mr. Olbermann’s famous temper to the hard-partying antics of the former entertainment boss, Ben Silverman, to the prime-time travails of Mr. Burke’s predecessor, Jeff Zucker. It now falls to Mr. Burke, who for 12 years has been far from the media glare as the No. 2 executive at Comcast in Philadelphia, to revitalize the ailing network as the new chief executive of NBC Universal.

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. A slightly patrician Republican with a Harvard M.B.A., he is so averse to playing internal politics that he recently held meetings with executives at a Midtown Manhattan coffee shop rather than his temporary office in Rockefeller Center to avoid prompting office gossip.

Can someone who relishes none of the forces that have defined NBC’s culture, and who displays no desire to push his own agenda in the media, succeed at the helm of one of America’s biggest media companies?

Over all, the company is doing well — its last quarter under General Electric’s ownership was its most profitable, thanks to its big cable channels like USA Network and Bravo — but Mr. Burke will have his hands full trying to revive NBC’s moribund prime-time schedule, particularly since his new employees regard him with suspicion, and many consider him reserved to the point of coldness.

Longtime associates say Mr. Burke simply takes time to warm up to others. “He’s not shy, he’s not reticent, he’s just not voluble like me,” is how Warren E. Buffett, a longtime friend of Mr. Burke’s family, put it.

“He’s going to be under more pressure than he should be because of the broadcast network,” said Bob Wright, the former chief executive of NBC Universal who met with Mr. Burke several times over the last year.

Mr. Burke, 52, declined to speak on the record for this article. But in numerous interviews with executives who know him well and with several longtime NBC executives who spoke anonymously because they did not want to jeopardize future relations with the new boss, a portrait of Mr. Burke’s personality and style as an executive emerges, as well as a sense of how NBC Universal’s culture may change under his leadership.

For nearly a decade, Mr. Burke and the Comcast chief executive, Brian L. Roberts, annually had dinner in New York City with Jeffrey R. Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric. At each meal, Mr. Burke pressed him to sell NBC Universal. Mr. Immelt’s answer was always no, until the financial crisis came in 2008, and then the answer was yes.

In the wake of the resignation of Mr. Olbermann, the left-leaning face of MSNBC, some critics have speculated in the press that the move was a politically motivated decision by Comcast. While most of Mr. Burke’s political donations have been to Republicans, Mr. Burke describes himself to associates as a “soft Republican,” and he voted for Barack Obama for president, even though he contributed to John McCain’s campaign, in 2008.

For the last 13 months, Mr. Burke spent each Tuesday and Wednesday in either New York or Los Angeles, meeting with NBC Universal executives. He held many meetings at a Midtown outpost of Le Pain Quotidien, a chain of cafes.

Mr. Burke, according to those who have spoken to him, came to believe the culture inside NBC Universal was driven by internal politics, press reaction and pleasing G.E. overlords.

A direct approach ...

“My expectation is, if there were to be a change, there would be a much more open environment with the free flow of information,” said Michael Lynton, the chairman and chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who worked for Mr. Burke in the 1990s at Disney. “He’s very direct. There’s very little beating around the bush.”

For someone with a long pedigree in television, Mr. Burke seems remarkably uninterested in the attendant glamour of the media business. His father, Daniel B. Burke, had been the president of Capital Cities Communications, which eventually acquired the ABC Network.

Still, “it was far from a family in which we were groomed for the business,” said Bill Burke, Mr. Burke’s younger brother.

“He was not always the top of his class, or Mr. Perfect, that sort of thing,” he said. “He probably started applying himself more in college.”

Mr. Burke, who is Irish Catholic, attended Colgate University, then applied to Harvard Divinity School, but ultimately chose Harvard Business School.

After business school, he worked at General Foods in a job that bored him, and took long lunches to train for marathons. His big career move was joining Disney in 1986, after his father’s partner at Capital Cities, Tom Murphy, phoned Michael D. Eisner, who led Disney at the time, Mr. Eisner recalled.

When Disney acquired Mr. Burke’s father’s company, Capital Cities/ABC, in 1995, Mr. Burke, who by then had run Disney’s retail stores and Euro Disney in Paris, helped integrate the two companies. He was extremely close to his father, who was the best man at his wedding. Today the elder Mr. Burke suffers from dementia and is unaware of his son’s new job.

“It’s very sad,” said Mr. Buffett, who had been a big investor in Capital Cities, has known the Burke family for decades and appointed the younger Mr. Burke to the board of his company, Berkshire Hathaway. “He’s exactly what I look for in a board member,” Mr. Buffett said. “I’m counting on him and other directors to make this place better when I’m not here.”

In 1998, Mr. Burke joined Comcast after being recruited by a headhunter, a move that surprised many in the industry.

“A lot of folks thought, ‘Why is he going to a cable company, where here he is at Disney running ABC?’ ” said Paul Pressler, a former colleague of Mr. Burke’s at Disney. “I think he had the foresight in to what cable meant for the future of media. That speaks to his instincts.”

But the move rankled Mr. Eisner, although the two repaired their relationship in recent years after Mr. Burke wrote Mr. Eisner a letter. The two now talk periodically about the business.

In Comcast, Mr. Burke was joining a family-run company where he would never be chief executive. But he is paid like one. In 2009, his pay package amounted to $34 million, more than Mr. Roberts made, making him one of the 20 highest-paid corporate executives, according to Fortune magazine.

His annual holiday card became legendary within Comcast, where associates say it was a testament to his humor and his closeness to his wife of nearly 30 years and their five children. It was also an odd contrast to his position at the company.

The 2010 card was an elaborately produced version the size of a glossy catalog, and had pages for the children with their faces superimposed on posters of their favorite movies. Mr. Burke and his wife, Gretchen, appeared as Steve Carell and Tina Fey in “Date Night.”

“Reminiscent of George Burns and Gracie Allen, this couple is so associated with each other that fans have taken to calling them by one name, ‘Stretchen,’ ” the card reads.

Mr. Burke rented an apartment in New York near Lincoln Center, but his family will stay in Philadelphia so his younger children can continue in their schools.

His chief challenge will be revitalizing the broadcast network — an American cultural institution that nonetheless is now the bottom-rated network in prime time, losing more than $500 million a year, according to Comcast executives.

“Your job as a media executive is to run all your businesses well,” said Peter Chernin, the former president of the News Corporation, who now runs his own firm, the Chernin Group, and is a close friend of Mr. Burke’s. “He won’t shy away from the difficult decisions.”

If Mr. Burke stays true to form, those decisions will be made privately, a break from NBC’s last few years of leaks and public humiliation.

“That may be a good thing, because NBC has been overexposed for years,” said one NBC Universal executive. “We probably need to get away from that. But Steve may have to recognize that there is huge public interest in NBC. It’s a national institution. He’s going to have to talk about it sometimes.”

NBC Universal is the parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com.

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