NEW YORK — Comcast Chief Operating Officer Steve Burke will succeed Jeff Zucker as the new CEO of NBC Universal later this year, when Comcast takes control of the broadcaster.
Comcast Corp. and General Electric Co., which currently owns NBC, said Sunday that Burke will work with Zucker during the transition. Zucker, who has spent his entire career at NBC, said last week that he would be stepping down after the change in control, telling employees in an e-mail that he understood the new owners would want to have one of their own at the helm.
The possibility of a change-in-command had been looming since last December, when Comcast agreed to buy a 51 percent stake in NBC Universal from Fairfield, Conn.-based GE. That deal, worth $13.75 billion, still hasn't cleared regulatory hurdles, but is expected to be completed around the end of the year.
Burke was seen as a likely successor to Zucker. The 52-year-old first joined Philadelphia-based Comcast in 1998 as president of Comcast Cable. He is credited with leading Comcast's delivery of video on demand, which was introduced in 2003. He has also been president of ABC Broadcasting and president and chief operating officer of Euro Disney SA.
Burke inherits a struggling fourth-place network in need of change. The network's news division and late-night programming have remained strong but its prime-time lineup has weakened since its 1990s dominance in the "Must-See TV" era of comedy hits "Friends" and "Seinfeld."
NBC Universal also owns the Telemundo television network along with 26 TV stations; cable channels USA, Bravo, Oxygen, Syfy, CNBC and others; the Universal Pictures movie studio and Focus Features; theme parks in California, Florida and Japan; and has part ownership of online video site Hulu.
In a joint statement Sunday, Comcast and GE said they have faith in Burke's ability to lead NBC.
"Steve is one of the most well-respected executives in the industry, and I am confident that he will lead NBCU forward to a new era of growth," said Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts.
The companies said they will make no other announcements about structure or personnel until timing for the deal's completion is certain. It's a nervous time for NBC execs, who say Comcast has been tight-lipped about plans for NBC Universal when it takes over. One name that has surfaced as a potential new executive there is Robert Greenblatt, the successful programming chief at Showtime who stepped down when his contract ended this summer.
Zucker, 45, left his post in 2000 as executive producer of "Today" to head up NBC's entertainment division, before becoming president of the NBC Universal Television Group, where he led entertainment, news and cable channels.
His legacy includes "Fear Factor," "The Apprentice," and multiple "Law & Order" spinoffs. But under his reign, NBC cut back on series development and costly pilots for new prime-time series. That alienated Hollywood's creative community and made producers, actors and writers worry that NBC was taking away jobs. He also was widely blamed for the network's loss of Conan O'Brien, after O'Brien refused to move to a later time slot to accommodate Jay Leno's return to late night.
Despite slipping prime-time ratings at NBC, Zucker helped build a stable of strong cable networks, including the top-rated USA network, The Weather Channel and CNBC, and the growing Bravo, Oxygen and Syfy. These are what made Comcast interested in acquiring a majority stake in NBC Universal, since the cable networks' dual revenue streams – advertising and fees from cable systems to carry them – can't be matched by traditional broadcast networks.
In the most recent quarter through June, financial results improved at NBC Universal mostly because of a rebound in advertising as well as stronger performance by movies and theme park sales.
Zucker's contract had been renewed last year to run through January 2013 with an annual salary of $6.3 million and a guaranteed annual bonus of $1.5 million. If he leaves by January, he can expect at least a $15.6 million check.