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From NBCU To WarnerMedia To Disney, CEO Transitions Are Creating Real-Life ‘Succession’ Dramas

Dade Hayes, Nellie Andreeva and Dominic Patten

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The news that NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke is planning to exit when his contract expires in 2020 comes at the same time the top job is also open at WarnerMedia. The two transitions atop major media companies — with a third, at Disney, looming in 2021, when CEO Bob Iger insists he will finally step away — punctuate the sense of uncertainty at the traditional entertainment heavyweights.

While NBCU’s transition appears to be anti-climatic, with Jeff Shell tipped to replace his boss Burke, WarnerMedia’s succession plan has been less clear. The derby has spurred Hollywood intrigue and speculation as to who will be the company’s next CEO, taking over for John Stankey.

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Even if they don’t come complete with back-stabbing and soapy plot-twists worthy of Succession (a proud HBO/WarnerMedia property, natch) the situations have a wide audience tuned in.

Beset by high-tech rivals, seeing their longtime foundations in pay-TV and motion pictures start to develop fissures, the lions of media are finally entering the streaming game after years on the sidelines. Steering streaming will be Job 1 for anyone in the corner office. NBCU will roll out Peacock, an ad-supported service, next April. WarnerMedia, owned by AT&T, will follow in May with subscription offering HBO Max. Disney and Apple just launched major subscription services in November. All are trying to close the gap with Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.

Burke will likely be succeeded by Shell, numerous insiders at NBCU and Comcast tell Deadline. Shell and Mark Lazarus each got big promotions in a January 2019 reorg. Currently chairman of film and entertainment, Shell had spent most of his career on the TV side, earning a reputation as a trusted deputy of Burke and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. He added film experience this decade, overseeing a revival at Universal Pictures.

Comcast and NBCU have not yet commented on the changing of the guard.

At 61, Burke isn’t at retirement age, certainly in an industry where moguls frequently work well into their 70s and 80s. It isn’t immediately clear what his chapter will be, or whether he will retain ties with Comcast, where he was COO before taking the helm of NBCU. Burke’s contract expires next August, so even Shell’s anointment wouldn’t preclude Burke from presiding over one last Olympics next summer in Tokyo.

At WarnerMedia, Stankey has overseen the entertainment portfolio for more than two years, a period spanning the $81 billion Time Warner acquisition and its subsequent rebrand as WarnerMedia. A lifetime telecom exec who became No. 2 at AT&T in October, taking the newly created post of Chief Operating Officer, Stankey was never a natural fit in Hollywood. Even so, he won a promotion this fall by restructuring and achieving cost savings at WarnerMedia, and he is seen as the top internal choice to replace Stephenson, who has pledged to stay in the corner office through 2020.

Stankey has publicly said an active search is under way for his replacement as WarnerMedia CEO, though the company has many other priorities and a resolution is not expected until well into the new year. Jeff Zucker, who added sports to his news duties when former Turner chief David Levy left the company early in 2019, is one internal candidate mentioned, but politics could prevent that. With CNN entering an historic election cycle, Zucker may not have as much maneuverability.

Other internal possibilities include Gerhard Zeiler, Bob Greenblatt and Sandra Dewey. Zeiler, who heads sales and international efforts as the company’s Chief Revenue Officer, has a stronger rep internationally than domestically, having run international for Turner and made waves during a lengthy CEO stint at RTL Group. Greenblatt, the former NBCU entertainment chief and producer, has spent the better part of 2019 as WarnerMedia entertainment chairman and is overseeing the content offering of HBO Max. Dewey, a Turner business affairs veteran, is now president of business operations and productions for HBO Max and has helped the company navigate a dense thicket of distribution issues around content rights.

As in the case of Disney, whose 14-year CEO, Bob Iger, plans to hand over the reins in 2021, the fate of the company’s streaming efforts could tell the tale. Kevin Mayer, who heads Disney’s Direct-to-Consumer & International unit, is seen as having the inside track to succeeding Iger because of the strong early performance of Disney+, the crown jewel of Disney’s streaming strategy.

Many Wall Street sources Deadline spoke with believe the strongest bet is for an outside candidate to take over at WarnerMedia. Peter Chernin, who had a long tour of duty as a key Rupert Murdoch lieutenant at News Corp. before launching a successful digital operation a decade ago, has been approached about the job, according to those close to the situation. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who is hard at work readying a streaming service of his own — the mobile-only Quibi, funded with more than $1 billion in start-up financing, which launches next April — has also been mentioned as potentially being in the mix.

Elliott Management, the activist hedge fund that has agitated for a suite of changes at AT&T, has expressed a strong preference for an infusion of outside management talent in general, though it hasn’t weighed in on the WarnerMedia job.

Given the intense state of flux in the entertainment sector, a number of viable outside contenders are likely waiting in the wings, after a burst of M&A activity in 2018 and 2019 has displaced hundreds of senior-level execs and thousands of employees. The Disney-Fox, Viacom-CBS and AT&T-Time Warner deals, plus other big mergers like Discovery-Scripps, Nexstar-Tribune and several more, have left a number of seasoned pros looking for new opportunities.

Whoever takes on the challenge of running NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia and eventually Disney will have to figure out the best solution to a problem facing every legacy media company.

“How NBCU will make the transition to an advertising-supported direct-to-consumer model, and how the assets that they don’t take to DTC will weather the erosion of the status quo, remain open questions,” longtime media analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson wrote in a recent note to clients. Third-quarter results reported in October showed total revenue of $8.3 billion had fallen 3.5% from the same period in 2018, though operating cash flow of $2.1 billion rose nearly 2% year over year. “Certainly, no one could call these results ‘bad,’ ” Moffett said. “They were broadly what people expected: revenues falling, albeit with strong cost reductions to keep profitability stable.”

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