The secrets of NBC Universal's success

The secrets of NBC Universal's success

By Steve Clarke,
Tuesday, 30th August 2016
Steve Burke (Credit: NBC Universal)
Steve Burke (Credit: NBC Universal)
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Steve Burke, Chief Executive of NBCU, tells Steve Clarke how the media giant’s performance is exceeding expectations.

With a diverse portfolio, strong profit growth and numerous divisions breaking records, it has been an amazing few years for NBCUniversal since Comcast’s acquisition. What do you credit for this level of performance?  

A Our performance over the last five years has exceeded our expectations. Since Comcast acquired NBCUniversal in 2011, we have doubled our cash flow and almost every part of our company is firing on all cylinders. 

The NBC Television network, which had been in fourth place for a long time, has won the broadcast season for two years in a row, thanks to hit shows such as The Voice, and two of our newest series, Blindspot and Chicago Med

Sunday Night Football remains the number-one show on TV, and we added Thursday-night games to the schedule. On top of that, NBC’s late-night line-up continues to dominate, with Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers

Our news division is also winning across the board, as NBC Nightly News, with Lester Holt, Meet the Press and Today are firmly back in the top spots. We secured the Olympic broadcast rights in the US through to 2032 and just broadcast a record-breaking 6,755 hours of compelling coverage from the Rio Olympic Games. 

Our film business completed its best year ever in 2015, shattering all box-­office records. Universal has had two consecutive record-breaking years and was the first studio to have three blockbuster hits — Jurassic World, Furious 7 and Minions — that each exceeded $1bn at the box office. 

This summer, we had a very successful launch of The Secret Life of Pets, which broke the record to become the best opening ever for an original film, animated or otherwise. 

The Universal theme parks have turned out to be one of the biggest growth businesses in the portfolio, and we have seen our investments in hotels and attractions such as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter pay off – with our cash flow more than tripling since 2009. 

We have also placed increased focus on our international business, which is led by Kevin MacLellan and his team, who oversee our businesses in 36 countries. Our theme parks division is in the midst of global expansion, as we are currently working on a new park in Beijing and we acquired 51% ownership of Universal Studios Japan last year. 

The international television business, in particular, has seen strong performance this year. Downton Abbey is the most highly nominated, non-US show in the history of the Emmys, with a total of 69 nominations in its six-series run. We launched hayu, the all-reality SVoD service in the UK and Australia. In Japan, Studio Universal and E! launched a branded SVoD service on Avex, the country’s largest mobile-video platform. 

The last five years have been great for NBCUniversal, but we still have a lot to do and see a lot of opportunity ahead of us.


Q How has the culture of NBC­Universal changed under your leadership? What are the leadership values you introduced to the company and why are they so important? 

A We run the company in a very decentralised way. We want business leaders to feel like they are truly in charge of their own divisions. 

I believe very strongly that this is the best way to run a company such as NBC­Universal, and it places an even higher premium on making sure that you have the right people in place. We like people who manage decisively, put the company first, treat colleagues and partners well and want to win. 

We have also made it a top priority for collaboration to be a core part of our culture. The best example is our “Symphony” efforts, where every one of our 22 businesses gets behind the launch of a new film, TV series or theme-park attraction. 

We have also rolled out “Symphony” internationally, and have seen impressive results from our businesses and clients in territories around the world. 

A notable example was our partnership with Sky around a joint marketing campaign for The Secret Life of Pets, which worked very well. 

"Almost every part of our company is firing on all cylinders"

What was the strategy behind acquiring DreamWorks Animation? How might the acquisition bolster NBCU’s portfolio, particularly your film, theme-park and consumer-product businesses? 

DreamWorks Animation is one of the world’s most admired family brands, with a dynamic film business and an extensive library of intellectual property. The acquisition gives NBCUniversal broader reach to a host of new audiences in the highly competitive kids and family entertainment space. With the addition of DreamWorks, we will be in a position to launch two more animated films per year.  

Thanks to our partners at Illumination Entertainment and Chris Meledandri, we have experienced great success with animated franchises – including hits such as Despicable Me, Minions and The Secret Life of Pets – that have not only fuelled some of our biggest box-office wins, but have also spawned popular attractions in our theme parks and helped build our consumer-products division. 

DreamWorks will also give us a strong footing in the kids TV space, thanks to its large production operation in Los Angeles. 


Q NBCUniversal has been making a series of digital investments including BuzzFeed and Vox Media, and launching your own SVoD services with hayu and Seeso. How do these investments play into your vision for the company’s future? 

A One of our top priorities over the next decade is to make sure that the company is well positioned to capture the growing audience of millennials, who are increasingly spending their time on digital platforms. Last August, we invested $200m in BuzzFeed, and $200m in Vox – two companies that have had tremendous success in the space and from which we can learn a lot. 

The Olympics provided the perfect opportunity for us to partner with BuzzFeed and cover the Games in new and innovative ways. We sent a crew of BuzzFeed reporters to Rio, who captured short, live clips that were distributed via Snapchat. 

We are also partnering with Vox’s The Verge to run a live Mr Robot after-show. This is a great way to engage and grow a young fan base. 

Seeso and hayu are also good examples of how we are launching digital businesses that are aimed at connecting directly with avid fans of specific genres. Hayu is an all-reality SVoD service, with fully integrated social-­media functionality, which launched in the UK, Ireland and Australia in April. We have been pleased with the results, which exceeded our expectations and provided a lot of learnings to the international teams about running direct-to-consumer businesses.

Burke’s progress

Steve Burke is CEO of NBCUniversal. He oversees the company’s port­folio of news, sports and entertainment networks, a film studio, TV production operations, a TV stations group and several theme parks. In April, NBCU bought DreamWorks Animation for $3.8bn. 

Burke assumed the role of CEO in January 2011 following Comcast’s purchase of NBCU from General Electric. He was previously COO of Comcast, having joined in 1998 as President of Comcast Cable. During his tenure, Comcast became the largest cable company, largest residential internet service provider and third-largest phone company in the US, and launched a wireless business. 

Prior to Comcast, Burke worked for Disney as President of ABC Broadcasting. He joined Disney in 1986, where he spearheaded the launch of stand-alone Disney Stores. In 1992, he moved to Euro Disney, where, as President and COO, he turned the business around. 

The son of a senior TV executive, Burke holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. He lives in New York with his wife and five children.  

Steve Burke, Chief Executive ­Officer of NBCUniversal, is a speaker at the RTS London Conference on 27 September. He was interviewed by Steve Clarke.