Facebook has a 'very serious problem,' NBCU CEO says

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Steve Burke, president and CEO of NBC Universal, speaks at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Steve Burke, president and CEO of NBC Universal, speaks at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

As an investor in Snap Inc. and professional power user of Snapchat, NBC Universal has emerged as a prominent cheerleader for the platform. And during the conglomerate's annual Innovation Day, CEO Steve Burke on Tuesday again professed his love.

"Snap for a whole variety of reasons values professionally produced content," Burke said during the event, which gathered media and marketing executives to hear from thought leaders in the space. It supports high-quality content by curating it for users and recognizing networks' need to fund it by selling and inserting ads, he said.

NBCU invested $500 million in Snapchat during its IPO last spring and has been leaning into content creation for the platform with the daily news show "Stay Tuned."

Burke's comments came roughly a week after The New York Times and others reported that Cambridge Analytica, the political data firm that worked for Donald Trump's presidential campaign, drew on improperly obtained data on 50 million Facebook users.

"Facebook has a real problem, they have a very serious problem ... large businesses are based on trust," Burke said. For Facebook, that challenge is exacerbated by a business model based on capturing data people don't know is being collected, he said.

As for potential new government regulation of Facebook and other digital powers, Burke noted that TV has always been regulated. "We don't take cigarette ads, we don't put a liquor ad on at two in the afternoon," he said. And TV advertising still largely is sold person-to-person, with human beings watching a commercial before it runs to ensure that it's appropriate, he added.

"Facebook is a gigantic business, and gigantic businesses have a responsibility to the world," Burke said.

Some publishers have become frustrated with Facebook for reasons that have nothing to do with the Cambridge Analytica story and everything to do with the struggle to build dependable traffic or significant revenue from their efforts there. A few have called lately for Facebook to pay publishers to carry premium content.

As AT&T battles the Justice Department in court to salvage its deal to buy Time Warner, Burke also commented on the M&A environment in media. "Sometimes with consolidation, people feel like they need to get bigger and more international, but they do deals that don't end up working," he said.

NBCU parent Comcast did make a bid last month for Sky. Burke said while NBCU has plenty of scale domestically, its "international presence isn't what I wish it was."

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