ONE OF STEVE BURKE’S first acts when he took over as CEO of NBCUniversal last winter was to redecorate the walls that General Electric had stripped bare. The cheerless, perfunctory paintings that had hung in the halls outside the executive offices at 30 Rock—and which said so much about GE’s soulless stewardship—were gone now, along with the company that owned them.
Burke, a lifelong student of the broadcasting business whose father, Dan, was once a powerful executive at ABC, recognized the empty space as an opportunity. He dispatched a staff member into the bowels of NBC’s headquarters to select 50 or 60 photos. Then he went through them, personally, and chose the very best: Bob Hope and Bing Crosby looking downright swellegant on a big stage, Johnny Carson and Groucho Marx perched on the edge of the Tonight Show desk, the cast of Seinfeld sitting in the most famous diner booth in American history.
Outside the executive conference room, Burke placed period photos of NBC’s most esteemed leaders, like founder David Sarnoff and programming whiz Brandon Tartikoff. The symbolism of the Tartikoff photo, in particular—hair tousled, eyes radiant—resonated with Burke. Tartikoff once rescued NBC, shepherding a weak last-place network to the top with programs like The Cosby Show, Hill Street Blues, Family Ties, Miami Vice and Cheers. Now Burke felt challenged to do the same.
The photos were a small gesture, but they said a lot about the way Burke, who’s spent the past dozen years in Philadelphia at Comcast, operates as an executive. “Steve believes,” says Brian Roberts, Comcast’s CEO, “as a manager and human being, that people need to have some sense of greater meaning in everything they do.”
For NBC employees, the greater meaning in those photos was easy to see: Comcast, like Burke, understands and intends to restore the company’s rich legacy in the broadcasting business. But the photos also held a message for Comcast executives and Burke himself: The largest cable company in America, the once-scrappy little outfit from Philadelphia, is now one of the leading entertainment companies in the world. Which means it has to succeed in an entirely different arena—creating stories instead of merely delivering them; reaching our hearts instead of merely wiring our homes.
TODAY, STEVE BURKE SPENDS three nights a week in Manhattan, tending to his new job, and four in Center City Philadelphia, where he and his wife, Gretchen, live. While he was once heavily involved in the community—he spent three years as chairman of the board at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—his focus now is almost completely on business. Like a lot of CEOs, in fact, Burke has been largely unavailable to the media. And he is likely to stay out of sight for several months yet. Such is the size of the task he faces.