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Burke's NBC Formula: More $$, Better Shows

Comcast will be ramping up spending on NBC’s primetime programming to the tune of $200 million this year, according to NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke.

But money alone won’t turn around the network, Burke said during Comcast’s first quarter earnings call Wednesday morning. “The real key to turning around NBC is not necessarily the increased investment. The real key is making better shows.” He said NBC is making 21 pilots this year, the same as last year, but up from when the network tried and failed by putting Jay Leno in primetime.

“We think broadcast has a tremendous upside for this company,” said Burke, who had run Comcast’s cable operations before being put in charge of NBCU. He said NBC has been underperforming the other big broadcast networks by hundreds of millions ofdollars. “It is a very tough business to turn around, and I think it is likely to take a number of years to turn it around. But when we do, going from fourth to third would be 100s of millions of dollars of positive swing in EDITDA.”

The launch of NBC’s The Voice might give the network its first big building block he said.

But NBC isn’t as big a priority as NBCU’s stable of cable networks, according to Burke. Comcast will increase programming investment by $100 million in cable to keep the growth rates high, he said.

Other areas at NBCU where Burke saw growth opportunities included Telemundo, International and Digital.

Burke was also asked by an analyst on the company’s approach to sports rights.

“I start by saying we’re in business to make money,” he said. “There are going to be instances where we get deals or renew deals, as was the case recently with hockey. There will be instances where we go as far as we feel we should go and someone else gets the rights, which appears to be the case in the Pac 12. ”

Burke called the Olympics and the NFL “fantastic” properties, but NBCU needs to make money from them. “There are a variety of ways you can make money: advertising or investing in a cable channel that would allow you to get increasing advertising and increased affiliate fees,” he said.

At the end of the day, Burke wanted the analysts to know he was less interested in donning an expensive team cap than wearing an accountant’s green eye shade. “We’re not going to do anything that doesn’t have a business plan that pencils out to a positive [net present value].”