OTHER BIG MEDIA MERGERS were as ballyhooed as Comcast’s new marriage. Look at Time Warner and AOL. Or Sirius XM satellite radio. Or Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and DirecTV. In each case, imagined “synergies” failed to materialize. Corporate cultures never melded.
Why should Comcast be any different?
The short answer could be: Burke.
Where other companies imagined grand partnerships, Burke saw examples, with his dad’s Cap Cities, of big organizations running with mom-and-pop-shop unity. He also understands the peculiar nature of the job in front of him: No matter how much money Comcast makes, its new venture will be perceived as unsuccessful unless Burke turns around NBC, the fourth-place broadcast network in television. “It isn’t remotely logical,” says Bob Wright, who ran the network from 1986 through 2007. “Those cable channels make $3 billion a year. The news divisions pull in good profits. But NBC symbolizes the entire company.”
Burke’s challenge, then, is to bolster the other parts of the business while also engineering NBC’s turnaround. Thus far, he has pursued a three-pronged approach: personnel and cultural changes; aggressive company-wide marketing of the most promising projects; and a renewed focus on programming. All of it is meant to tell his employees a story: NBCUni’s corporate culture of me-first behavior and office politicking has been rejected for something more Comcastic—professional and ambitious, calm and unified.
The personnel changes garnered early attention. Since Burke’s arrival, at least 20 high-level executives have departed or been pushed out the door, including CEO Jeff Zucker, who had a reputation for being arrogant—not Comcast material at all. Jeff Gaspin, NBC’s ex-chair of TV entertainment, was rumored to have ordered the addition of a private $200,000 bathroom to his personal office—not the reason he was fired, but vainglory at its peak. And NBC sports chief Dick Ebersol, who made the network the broadcast home of the Olympics, wanted to run the sports division the way he always had—as a personal fiefdom.
The timing of Ebersol’s departure sent the loudest message, coming just three weeks before the Games came up for bid this summer. The smart money said Comcast would leave the Olympics to ESPN. But Burke ventured $4 billion and won 10 more years of the Games. “That was huge,” says one longtime newsroom manager at 30 Rock. “When they got rid of Ebersol, people were worried—maybe Comcast didn’t get it, or didn’t care. But when they retained the Olympics, that gave people a lot of confidence in them.”
Even as he’s been shuffling personnel, Burke has also been leveraging the vast marketing synergies the new Comcast-NBCUni enjoys. “Steve does this thing he calls ‘scrambling the jets,’” says Comcast CFO Michael Angelakis. “He brought it up to me around the show The Voice.”
“Scrambling the jets,” in Burke parlance, means plowing more money into the production budget and leveraging the company’s varied promotional assets. The result demonstrates the powerful marriage of the nation’s largest pay-TV provider and a gigantic entertainment company. Last winter, after Comcast promoted NBC’s new talent competition The Voice through its OnDemand platform and social media outlets, the show became the network’s first real ratings hit in years. And Comcast markets made the difference: Viewership was 40 percent higher in markets Comcast serves.
This unified marketing muscle has also produced hits for Universal Studios. Remember last spring’s Hop, the animated kids’ movie that people saw in bunches? Even Comcast’s Golf Channel joined the marketing push—sending a little digitized bunny hopping across fairways and putting greens. Fast Five also received the treatment and proved a hit. Up next? Smash, a Stephen Spielberg-produced drama about the creation of a musical, debuting on NBC mid-season. That show, featuring bona fide stars like Debra Messing and Anjelica Huston, will likely help set the stage for Burke himself to do a round of media interviews—the boss touting the new NBCUni and its downright Comcastic marketing strength.
Of course, at the end of the day, promotion only works if you have shows people want to watch, which is why Burke’s most important moves will be those directly impacting what we see on our TV screens. At the moment, the network’s ratings remain a disaster. The material left over from GE’s pipeline, like The Playboy Club, which ran for just a few weeks in the fall before cancellation, has actually deepened NBC’s slide, pushing the network even further into fourth place. But Burke has plowed at least $100 million into new program development. Wright, the former CEO, says that should net Burke more scripts and more pilots, at a rate of $2 million per comedy and $5 million or more per drama.
To make that investment pay, Burke’s biggest hire so far is his new chair of entertainment, Bob Greenblatt. In business terms, Greenblatt represents the kind of “prudent risk” the business press has long praised Comcast for taking. His successes run from The X-Files at Fox to dark, edgy dramas he oversaw for Showtime, like Dexter, about a serial killer of serial killers, and Weeds, about a pot-dealing mom. Can Greenblatt craft the kind of broadly popular programming NBC needs to begin climbing the ratings ladder? Or will he prove to be a true “cable guy”—specializing in niche stories for narrow audiences?
No one knows yet. His first full fall schedule won’t debut until 2012. And it will take a few years, at least, to evaluate that slate. Thus far, he has approached stars as varied as “safe” comedian Dane Cook and rapper Snoop Dogg, whose experience before the camera runs from music to porn. But temperamentally, Greenblatt is a Comcast sort of guy: In an industry filled with men and women who’d stab their mothers in the heart for a development deal, he has a reputation for being kind. And sane.
Still, for Comcast and for Burke, creating popular programming will ultimately be the greatest leap they have to make. When it comes to hit shows, much of the appeal is based on the element of surprise—presenting us with a vision we’ve never seen or considered. This is the exact opposite of Burke’s business at Comcast. In the cable game, Comcast provides wires and boxes to produce a theoretically reliable result: Press this button and the moving pictures start. Arguably, the company too often fails to get that right. But now NBCUni has entered into a far more difficult racket. Now, its job is to generate the next Seinfeld or Lost—the next story that will hit America right where we didn’t even know we live.
Burke once remarked, in a 2002 Philadelphia magazine interview, that he was “not a heavy consumer” of television. So his new job has forced him into the same kind of crash course he undertook in his past while he was creating Disney Stores. “He wasn’t much of a shopper back then and isn’t now,” says Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton. “But he started spending hours and hours at the Gap.”
Burke didn’t just develop an academic understanding of retail. He came to love it—to find a new passion in harnessing the strange alchemy of ingredients that welcomes people into some stores and encourages them to buy.
By all accounts, Burke is similarly in love with television now, his lifelong grasp of the business side of the operation marrying with his love for figuring out another puzzle. He works in an office filled with flat-screens. He leaves the building each day with a stack of DVDs. He catches up on hits from over the years to try and gauge where America’s interests lay then and where they might be tomorrow. It is the culmination, it would seem, of the path he first started on as a child. But just as on television, the final act offers up some pathos—and perhaps one last twist in the plot.