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Burke Will Head NBC Universal Following Comcast Merger

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Confirming the obvious, Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA) and GE announced this afternoon that Comcast COO Steve Burke will succeed Jeff Zucker as CEO of NBC Universal (NYSE: GE) following the merger. The companies also said there will be no further structural or personnel announcements until the timeline and process for closing the deal, now pending regulatory approval, is set.

The move comes just two days after Zucker said Burke told him Comcast wanted to go its own way and that he would be leaving. This announcement should quiet regulatory concerns about the new entity’s leadership although it may raise other issues. Burke and others at Comcast had been insistent about its decentralization under Zucker; there’s nothing decentralized about being run by the COO — a title and role Burke retains.

Zucker’s ouster was as public as it gets, carefully orchestrated to give the departing CEO every chance to get his story out there in his own words. Comcast waited until Sunday afternoon to confirm that Burke, already tapped within the cable company as the exec responsible for NBCU, would take the title of CEO. No interviews, no comments beyond the canned quotes in the press release.

In the same release, Comcast, far more publicity-averse than Zucker’s NBCU, tried to tamp down the increasing speculation about how NBCU will be structured by saying nothing official was on the way. That’s a genie that never fit in the bottle but the reports that announcements are imminent should fade. That leaves a number of top execs twisting publicly, most notably Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment.

Gaspin’s power has increased substantially in recent years; his key assignment of late has been to clean up the mess Zucker created with the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien debacle by rebuilding NBC’s original primetime programming. Barely anyone I spoke with during a chatty few days in LA expected Gaspin to survive, even before Zucker’s departure was confirmed. That doesn’t make it automatic but it may take substantial compromise to avoid it.

Not Burke’s first big merger: The decision to hold back the details is a shift from the way Burke managed the acquisition and integration of AT&T Broadband, the most complicated and expensive merger for Comcast prior to this, nearly a decade ago. Then, Burke carefully laid out the structure and most of the key personnel far in advance, saying he wanted to be very aggressive and ready to hit the ground running. Of six regional divisions, only one wound up being headed by a president who came from AT&T (NYSE: T).

His own role was an open secret for months. Burke and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts never suggested anyone but a Comcast exec would run the combined operations but he repeatedly expressed a desire to keep that senior management team. Most of them preferred the severance package to demotions.

But the $72 billion AT&T Broadband merger, which helped Comcast vault to the top of cable operators and stay there, was all about operations and technology. The mega-merger of Comcast’s cable nets and some other assets with NBC Universal includes added layers of creativity, personalities and competition on a much larger stage.

Burke joined Comcast in 1998 from Walt Disney Co. as president of Comcast Cable, a role he kept until earlier this year when Charter (NSDQ: CHTR) CEO Neil Smit was brought in to free him up for NBCU. He knew when he came on that Roberts had big plans in mind. Not all of then happened: acquisition attempts for MediaOne and, more spectacularly, Disney, failed. Comcast eventually wound up with what was left of MediaOne through the AT&T deal. NBCU is their chance to accomplish on the content side much of what was hoped for from Disney.

Burke started his business career as in the breakfast group at General Foods. At Disney, he helped start The Disney Stores, worked with EuroDisney, and was president of ABC Broadcasting during the difficult integration of Capital Cities/ABC with Disney (NYSE: DIS). He told me in 2002: “There was a side of that that was painful when things didn’t work out. … It’s just a shame when you see really good people who are enjoying their jobs all of a sudden – because of a merger – feel differently about it.”

Back in 2001, when I interviewed him for Cableworld about management styles and the training he set in place at Comcast, Burke said, “I think Disney over controls and think my model would be much closer to a GE model. (He was talking about the Eisner era.) He added: “If a person is hitting their numbers and they have a good reason for doing what they’re doing … we don’t over manage these field operations.”

Yet to be seen: what that says for the people who have been working under the real GE model.