Steve Burke: ‘Think like an owner, not a renter’

Steve Burke: ‘Think like an owner, not a renter’

Steve Burke speaking at the RTS London Conference 2016 (Credit: Paul Hampartsoumian)
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Tina Brown interviews Steve Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal, at the RTS London Conference and receives a candid insight into how he intends to future-proof the business

Q Tina Brown, CEO of Tina Brown Live Media: What keeps you up at night, thinking about this business five or 10 years down the line? 

Steve Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal: Seven years ago the iPad didn’t exist, [but] I would bet that the majority of people here have been on their iPad… this morning.… Change over the past seven years… has been surprisingly rapid. And my bet is that it is going to [continue] in the next six years. Increasingly, a big part of my job is to make sure that we position the company for the future. 

I think we’ve done a very good job of taking NBCUniversal… and making it more successful and profitable. But that’s only half of our job, to maximise the ecosystem that we currently operate in. The other half, the harder half, is to get the company ready for the future. 

 

Q Tina Brown: Except that now you have to do it at warp speed? 

A Steve Burke: Exactly.… I’m 58, the world I grew up in is not going to be the world that NBCUniversal and Comcast are going to find 10 or 20 years from now. And some of the skills, instincts and behaviour that make you successful in the traditional world could actually retard your success in the future.… 

 If you’re really forcing yourself and your executive team to think five, 10, 20 years from now, shame on you if you don’t start to get more digital DNA inside your company. 

 

Q Tina Brown: There’s so much content out there. It seems to me that the number-one challenge is how to find it. 

A Steve Burke: In the good old days, if you had a show that was the least objectionable show, it would be a success. Today, the middle of the market has just gone.… People will do whatever they can to find one of those great big breakthroughs.… So, a big part of our focus… is finding those things that have the potential to really break through and then, when you find them, to get all the resources of the company behind them. 

 

Q Tina Brown: How [do] you break down silos?… One of [your] achievements at NBCUniversal… seems to be that  you have managed to get everyone working in the same direction. 

A Steve Burke: There are a lot of ways to run successful companies and there is a model that says, if you have a variety of divisions, let everybody kill each other and maybe the strongest will survive. I’ve worked in environments like that. I didn’t enjoy it.… 

We have 22 different businesses… we’re very decentralised. The people who run those businesses get up every morning thinking that it is, to some extent, their business, but [also that] they are part of a [wider] company.… 

And we stand for certain ways of doing business. We have a saying, “Think like an owner, not a renter.” That means that it’s your job if you are the steward of one of our businesses to think… about the success of the business in a long‑term way.… 

 We don’t tolerate bickering and fighting.… Over time, organisations are very sensitive to what gets rewarded and what gets punished and, in our company, if you don’t co‑operate and you’re not a good colleague, you get punished more than you get rewarded. Over time, people figure that out. 

 

Q Tina Brown: [Comcast’s] decision to buy NBCUniversal was quite controversial.… Why did you believe it was the right move? 

A Steve Burke: I joined Comcast 18 years ago and [CEO] Brian Roberts and I had always believed that content and distribution work well together. But only if you manage it.…  

Our dream was to get big on the distribution side, and we ended up becoming America’s largest cable company, and then [to] get bigger in content. We had a handful of channels before NBCUniversal but not a very large portfolio. So we always thought it made sense.

 

Q Tina Brown: You’ve done a lot of acquiring and investing recently. Why did you want DreamWorks? 

A Steve Burke: DreamWorks was a very, very specific opportunity.… We think that the animated-film business may be the best part of the feature-film business.… At the same time, DreamWorks is advancing our agenda in a number of areas that are related to the film business. It is in the animated television business, which we are not currently. It has a consumer-products business with all the DreamWorks characters; we have a consumer-products business and we can put those two together. Then, all the DreamWorks characters will be in our theme parks. 

 

Tina Brown: Brian Roberts has just announced a collaboration with Netflix.… When did this rapprochement happen with Netflix? 

A Steve Burke: What Tina is referring to is [that], on Comcast set-top boxes, Netflix is going to be integrated so that consumers will be able to access Netflix without turning off the television set or streaming on their computers. The majority of Comcast customers have Netflix.…  

You can look at it negatively and say, “Oh my gosh, every person who goes over to Netflix potentially will never come back”, but the reality is that those Netflix customers enjoy… the cable channels they get. Why not make it easier, simpler and less intrusive, and have a happier customer? 

 

Q Tina Brown: Turner Chairman John Martin recently said that one of his top priorities was to generate more intellectual property.… Is [this] good or bad news for independent creators? 

A Steve Burke: There are advantages… to owning a lot of your own content. But I don’t think we’ll ever own 100% of our content on any of our channels. 

 

Q Tina Brown: What did you learn from the Downton Abbey success? Has it made you want to invest more in UK product and drama? 

A Steve Burke: We have a huge investment profile in the UK [including] Working Title [and] Carnival. This is a huge, huge market for us.… We want to be the best place for talented people to bring their great ideas.… 

A lot of [this] is going on in the UK and… in other places outside the US, and my prediction is that more and more will be international. NBCUniversal and Comcast are less international than News Corp, the Walt Disney Company or Time Warner, and I look at that as an opportunity. 

 

Q Tina Brown: So you are going to be expanding in that way? 

A Steve Burke: Yes. 

 

Q Tina Brown: How is Brexit going to [affect] NBCUniversal? Sterling has tanked 10% – is ITV looking rather cheap? 

A Steve Burke: Brexit is concerning.… Business people don’t like uncertainty.…  

We have had such a good experience, creatively, in the UK and it’s the headquarters of our international operations, [so] you hope and pray that it’s going to remain that way for ever. 

 

Q Tina Brown: And what about ITV? 

A Steve Burke: No, nothing to say there. 

 

Q Tina Brown: [Even though it has] its own production house – would that not fit in with your desire to create more content?  

A Steve Burke: Yes and no.… I think that it’s very challenging to think about the network side of free‑to‑air broadcasting anywhere outside the US. I think we’d be more interested in distributing the product that we make and creatively making television shows and movies outside the US. 

 

Q Tina Brown: [NBC Universal’s investment in] BuzzFeed – presumably this was an attempt… to bring in… digital natives? 

A Steve Burke: About a year ago we put $200m into BuzzFeed and $200m into… Vox.… We’re hoping to make money on the investments – we didn’t do it to lose money – but the real reason that we invested in both companies is because we think they do things that we need to learn how to get good at, that we are not good at.  

BuzzFeed is an extraordinary source of content that has amazing capabilities in terms of getting things viral, on to Facebook, on to Snapchat. 

 

Q Tina Brown: What’s the biggest change that you’ve seen? You’ve been in this business now a long time: you were at ABC, you were at Disney. [You’re] at NBCUniversal and you’ve extended [your contract for another four years]. 

A Steve Burke: In the media business, things are infinitely more complicated. And [you could] be intimidated by that – you literally can’t pick up a newspaper without reading three or four stories a day about technologies that are impacting on the businesses that we [are] in.

But… what could be more exciting than to be in a company that’s right in the middle of… the most exciting, impactful change in a generation, which is the internet and how it’s changing all the ways that we consume, and our entertainment and forums. 

 

Steve Burke is CEO of NBCUniversal. Tina Brown is a former editor‑in‑chief of Tatler, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and founder and CEO of Tina Brown Live Media. The session was produced by Denise Bassett and Nigel Warner.