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Meet the Un-Mogul Reinventing TV

Steve Burke Will Decide What You See and How You'll See It -- and Change the Ad Model in the Process

By Published on . 3

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- At Manhattan's Eleven Madison Park, customers can dine on guinea fowl and Loup de mer. When 20 or so of the ad industry's top media experts convened there last April, however, all they really wanted was a taste of the future.

Comcast COO Steve Burke
Comcast COO Steve Burke Credit: Photo Illustration by Sean McCabe, Original Photo by Tim Shaffer
In a private meeting, Irwin Gotlieb, the global CEO of WPP's GroupM, Bill Koenigsberg, president-CEO of independent Horizon Media, and Rob Norman, chief executive of GroupM's North American operations, were among the executives who got their first good look at Chief Operating Officer Stephen Burke, the senior Comcast Corp. executive who at the time was months away from officially being named the incoming leader at the mammoth NBC Universal.

Accompanying Mr. Burke was David Cassaro, president of ad sales for Comcast's cable networks. But it was Mr. Burke who dominated the evening. "Steve led the conversation," said one executive present at the event.

It's the first of many conversations Mr. Burke, 52, will lead over the next several months -- and perhaps the least among them will be about whether "30 Rock" belongs at 10 p.m. on Thursdays. This new media boss is in a unique position not only to influence what America watches, but to also shape the way in which marketers advertise to the nation by harnessing the one-to-one addressable technology of cable and melding it with the mass reach and programming might of NBC Universal. It's a high-profile task for a person who has avoided the media-industry spotlight in the past. But Mr. Burke's pedigree and management style point to an executive who thrives on intense, albeit quiet, competition. "The stimulus for him is more about the work than all of the other stuff that comes with it," said William Burke, his youngest brother.

Mr. Burke is the executive who once said he liked his perch at Philadelphia-based Comcast in part because he and his family "have been able to avoid a lot of media attention, and we like that," as he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2004. "We love the business, but we'd just as soon drive our kids to school and have a good life." Comcast said Mr. Burke would not comment for this story.

A new kind of challenge
Yet soon he could find himself tangled up in any number of sticky situations. Mr. Burke has had oversight of TV stations and TV networks -- Comcast owns E! and Versus, among others -- but he's never had to be the guy explaining why Keith Olbermann gets suspended for making political contributions or why a network moves Conan O' Brien into the "Tonight" show only to send him packing for a show that could send some of NBC's ad revenue over to Time Warner's TBS.

Mr. Burke's rise has been a quiet but noticeable one. His first job after graduating Harvard Business School was devising product ideas for Grape-Nuts, then owned by General Foods in White Plains, N.Y., not far from his childhood stomping grounds in and around Rye, N.Y.

(From l.) Brian Roberts, Ralph Roberts and Stephen Burke
(From l.) Brian Roberts, Ralph Roberts and Stephen Burke Credit: Catherine Ledner

In the years since, he's developed a vast range of expertise that makes him a formidable operator. He helped build a massive video-on-demand system at Comcast, grew a huge telecommunications-provider business, and developed Comcast's broadband services. He has a history of creating business units from scratch and working with the content-distribution technology that will be so much more a part of TV's future.

To understand his style, one must first understand Mr. Burke's family. He's the eldest of four children, and more or less grew up in business: His uncle, James Burke, was chairman at Johnson & Johnson during the company's infamous early-1980s Tylenol scare. His father, Dan Burke, was one of two executives -- the other was Tom Murphy -- who ran Capital Cities, the TV-station operator that made history in 1985 when it purchased ABC for around $3.5 billion. In the media business, the company's acumen for controlling costs and allowing executives to do their jobs -- so long as their operations thrived -- is legendary.

Like father, like son
"Tom and Dan were real partners," recalled Robert Callahan, a longtime Capital Cities executive who would go on to work for and then succeed Steve Burke as head of ABC's TV stations after Walt Disney bought the company in 1996. "You would almost use the two in the same sentence for anything -- a line extension, an acquisition, a budget review. It's always 'Tom and Dan." The case might be made that Mr. Burke enjoys a similar relationship with Brian Roberts, Comcast's chairman and chief executive. "My dad and Tom Murphy operated very similarly" to how Mr. Roberts and Mr. Burke run things, said William Burke.

Steve Burke has adopted other qualities from his father, say those who know him. "I did not want to miss any of my numbers," said Mr. Callahan of the elder Mr. Burke, "because he was fierce, but very, very fair."

So when the younger Mr. Burke plays, he wants to win -- whether in business or as a marathon runner, a pursuit that has taken some of his time over the years. Steve Burke "can be very competitive on the playing field," said Nick Davatzes, CEO Emeritus of A&E Television Networks, who worked with Mr. Burke on the organization's board of directors. People who work for him can expect to be under a fair amount of pressure to execute a plan that will have a great deal of thought behind it.

At Walt Disney, which he joined in 1986, he helped establish and run Disney Stores. He was subsequently dispatched to rework the Euro Disney theme park; integrate ABC under the Disney umbrella; and supervise ABC's TV and radio stations and syndication operations.

He surprised many when he left in 1998 for the spot of chief operating officer at family-run Comcast, viewed then as a simple purveyor of cable TV. In reality, said his brother, Steve Burke moved "to a smaller place that was trying to grow" and let him gain broader operating experience.

He now has the chance to put it into full practice. Already, Mr. Burke has eliminated several top layers of management at NBC Universal, which is parting with Jeff Zucker as well as Jeff Gaspin, a veteran executive who was seeing broadcast and cable entertainment operations. In their place: no successors, but a coterie of direct reports with specific portfolios such as sports, NBC broadcast entertainment; and so on. The expectation is is of a more hands-on operation with a flatter executive structure.

Taking a wider outlook
Rather than try to micro-manage, Mr. Burke is likely to take a broader view, suggested Mr. Callahan. "He's a creative executive, but at the end of the day, Steve is just a really astute operator. He's smart enough to know you really have to pick creative people. He would very much pick his executives, whether it's sales or creative execution, and let them run," he said.

NBCU's new operating chiefs will likely have room to roam, but woe unto them if their divisions come up short or if they place more emphasis on generating personal publicity and internal politics over executing a corporate plan. "He'll be in this for the long term as opposed to any short-term stunts," predicted Steve Bornstein, chief executive of the NFL Network, who worked with Mr. Burke at Disney when Mr. Bornstein served as chief executive of ESPN.

First on the plate for NBC Universal CEO will be fixing long-running problems that have sapped the strength of flagship NBC. Anticipation is running high that Comcast will try to use its Versus cable channel, NBC's Olympics broadcasts and NBC Sports' control of "Sunday Night Football" to mount a challenge to ESPN. And Mr. Burke will want to continue the momentum enjoyed by cable outlets such as Bravo, MSNBC, and SyFy.

But the end goal will be to try and hitch Comcast's massive cable footprint and the set-top box technology upon which it relies to hours of NBCU content to drive new TV-viewer behavior, such as responding to TV commercials with a remote and pushing the evolution of so-called "addressable" advertising.

These new formats could ultimately make TV advertising more valuable even as TV watching becomes a more diffuse activity. It's this mix of "pipes, data and content," said one senior media executive familiar with Mr. Burke, or the ability to devise entertainment as well as the means by which people see it, that might make the $37 billion-plus combination of Comcast and NBCU more compelling to Procter & Gamble or Unilever.

Indeed, Comcast has the opportunity to carve a new media landscape. "Comcast didn't acquire NBC Universal to move Steve Burke to run the network," said Group M's Mr. Gotlieb. Instead, he suggested, Comcast purchased the company "because they saw significant synergies going forward" that include marrying the company's ability to reach consumer homes with the content that draws consumers to the TV set, computer screen and digital device in the first place.

The new entity would also help Comcast reduce its overwhelming reliance on revenue from cable, broadband and video-services subscriptions -- a whopping estimated $33.9 billion in 2009, compared with around just $1.5 billion from programming -- at a time when more consumers appear interested in cable "cord cutting." Owning and controlling content could be the smart strategy as consumers stop caring about which video-distribution vehicle brings them their favorite episode of "Desperate Housewives."

Leading the conversation -- in your living room
Mr. Burke doesn't have all the time in the world. Now that Comcast has wrapped its wires around NBC Universal, Mr. Burke will have to make certain those cables continue to have consumers at the other end. He'll likely do it by trying to develop better content that attracts broader audiences: more sports, TV shows that appeal to broader swaths of the public and fewer quirky programs aimed at upscale urbanites.

The trouble? Trying to attract the American consumer en masse is never a sure bet, and the trick one uses to do it in the first place doesn't always work the next time it's put into practice. Mr. Burke dazzled the ad intelligentsia at a private party, but now he has to entertain the broader population -- and entice them to change their behavior -- all in a short period of time. You can expect him to "lead the conversation." This time, however, he'll be doing it in your living room.

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