Executive Shuffle at NBC Hints at C.E.O. Succession
The game of thrones at NBCUniversal has begun.
The company on Monday announced a series of executive changes that could set the stage for the next generation of leaders at a media empire that includes the NBC broadcast network; Universal Film Studios; and cable channels such as Bravo and MSNBC, which has seen a ratings surge during the Trump administration.
Stephen B. Burke, the chief executive, streamlined the management structure by putting Jeff Shell in charge of Hollywood operations, including the international business and Telemundo, and having Mark Lazarus oversee the broadcast network, the news division, the cable networks and the sports group.
Bonnie Hammer, 68, the longtime head of the company’s profitable cable portfolio, has been put in charge of an advertising-supported streaming service that was announced Monday and is expected to debut early next year. It will compete with new stand-alone streaming products from the Walt Disney Company and AT&T’s WarnerMedia, as well as entrenched players like Netflix and Hulu. Disney’s and WarnerMedia’s products are expected to debut at the end of this year.
Many in the industry interpreted the moves as Mr. Burke’s positioning a showdown between Mr. Lazarus and Mr. Shell to be his possible successor. Effectively, Mr. Burke, 60, has set up an East Coast and West Coast divide: Mr. Lazarus will control much of the company from NBC’s operations in New York and Stamford, Conn., and Mr. Shell will take over the Hollywood assets from Burbank, Calif.
“Mark and Jeff, I think, are two of the most capable people in the entertainment business,” Mr. Burke said in an interview in his offices at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan. “Everyone has been very supportive of each other. It was just time.”
As for what the moves mean for Mr. Burke’s future, he added, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Mr. Burke was appointed the head of NBCUniversal in 2011 after Comcast completed its acquisition of the media giant. At the time, over 20 executives reported directly to him. The latest changes will bring that number down to 12.
“We can move faster now,” he said.
Mr. Lazarus, 55, has been the head of NBC Sports since 2011, when he replaced Dick Ebersol. He will now oversee NBC News, MSNBC and the moneymaking cable portfolio that includes Bravo, USA and the E! network. Andrew Lack, the NBC News chairman, will report to Mr. Lazarus.
Mr. Shell, 53, will continue to oversee the film division and also have control of NBC Entertainment as well as the international division and Telemundo. The NBC Entertainment co-chairmen Paul Telegdy and George Cheeks, who replaced Robert Greenblatt in September, will report to Mr. Shell. Before coming to NBC Universal in 2013, Mr. Shell was an executive in Comcast’s programming group.
The move to streaming will be a big one for Ms. Hammer, who joined Universal three decades ago. She has overseen many of NBC’s profitable cable properties for several years, and is one of the most powerful women in television.
Mr. Burke said that he had considered executives from outside the ranks to run the streaming business, but that Ms. Hammer was “the right person.”
“She didn’t hesitate,” he added.
She will be joined by two executives from Sky, the British pay-TV operator that Comcast won in a bidding war with Disney last year. Sky is primarily known as a satellite broadcaster, but it has developed a robust streaming service that runs across several European territories. NBCUniversal hopes to take advantage of their experience.
Jumping into streaming has become the go-to strategy for established media businesses. Disney bought most of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox business with the idea that it would start selling shows and films directly to consumers. AT&T bought Time Warner for the same purpose. As more people cut their cable subscriptions, streaming services are taking a share of that business.
But NBCUniversal is taking a two-sided approach that aims to keep the cable business intact. The ad-supported product will be free to anyone who has a cable or satellite account, but for cord cutters there will be a pay option.