Comcast's Sports News Point Man

Throughout his career, Princell Hair has accomplished big things at a young age, from running a major-market newsroom at 30, to overseeing CNN’s U.S. operations at 36, to spearheading Comcast’s lucrative local content strategy not long after turning 40. Hair’s ability to perform beyond his years goes back to childhood; at the age of 5, he would ride a succession of city buses each day to attend a better school on the more fortunate side of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

As executives at both Comcast and NBC Universal seek the best ways to marry the cable colossus and broadcast giant, many are looking to Hair, and his rich experience in both of those worlds, to smooth the transition. For his part, Comcast Sports Group’s senior VP of news is happy to lend his expertise. “I’ve been called into a number of meetings in which there are primarily cable people inside and I’m sometimes the only broadcast person,” he says. “That’s an important perspective.”

Marrying disparate cultures can be tricky, as anyone who witnessed AOL and Time Warner’s prickly partnership can attest. But Comcast’s principals say Hair, with his collaborative spirit and low-ego approach, is a go-to guy in the new arrangement. “Princell is a very talented executive with a whole breadth of experience,” says Jon Litner, Comcast Sports Group president. “He’s got an eye for talent and a great ability to collaborate with people, and he gives people a real sense of ownership in their work.”

That maturity was cultivated during Hair’s early years. His story is all too typical of impoverished areas: absentee father, welfare, the projects, a mother, Bessie, who worked multiple jobs. But Bessie saw great things in her son, an intelligent and industrious kid with a paper route when other kids were messing around, and was resolute about helping him realize his potential. Each year, Bessie would buttonhole the school district superintendent about letting Princell attend what he calls “the white school” across town. With Bessie working endless factory shifts to provide for her two sons, it was on Princell to ride the city bus, including a transfer, to and from school each day.

Bessie Johnson recalls the close-knit community kept a watchful eye on her son when she could not. “People would say, you should be proud,” Johnson says. “You’ve got a real good kid.”

Sticking with school when so many in the community, including his brother, opted for early exits from education and the lure of crime, Hair landed in the TV station world in 1989. He worked in various Miami newsrooms, moved up quickly and scored his first news director job at WMAQ Chicago at the age of 30. Hair says it was a “tumultuous” time at the NBC-owned station, with a newsroom split over the hiring of Jerry Springer to do on-air commentary, negative press and a talent exodus. Hair picked up a few essential skills in attempting to keep the peace in Chicago.

“It was a newsroom divided, but we still had to put on several newscasts a day,” he says. “I’d majored in journalism and minored in psychology, and probably used the psychology more than the journalism there.”

Hair left to run the WBAL Baltimore newsroom in 1998, then took over news for the CBS O&O group in 2001. He jumped to the cable world in 2003 with Turner and worked his way up to executive VP/general manager of CNN-U.S., which he says was somewhat tumultuous as well. “I was ready for the job,” he says. “I wasn’t ready for the politics.”

After a 14-month stint running CNN-U.S., Hair joined Comcast in 2008, where he was tasked with overseeing news and studio programming for its regional sports and entertainment networks. Litner calls Hair “the architect” of the cable giant’s studio operations. “He hires talent, he identifies strong news directors and makes sure the content on the air is powerful and meaningful,” says Litner.

One project is seeing how Comcast’s sports networks and NBC Local Media’s sports departments can complement each other in common markets. Next month, SportsNet Bay Area will start producing the sports reports for KNTV San Francisco, and the model is likely to be deployed elsewhere. “We want to start in one place, get whatever learnings we can out of that and evaluate it,” Hair says.

Hair’s view from a corner office overlooking Philadelphia’s gleaming skyline is breathtaking, if a bit sterile, compared to a big-city newsroom. Occasionally he misses the buzz. “Sometimes I’ll turn up the TV real loud just so there’s some noise,” Hair quips.

The 28th floor digs are a far cry from the bleaker side of Fort Lauderdale, and Hair is quick to credit his mother for helping him rise above it. “For whatever reason, she saw something in me,” he says. “She pushed me, and I really think that who I am, where I am, the perseverance, going for it, getting what you want—I learned from her.”

With regional sports networks all over the country, and one planned for Houston next year, Hair is frequently on the road. But he spends his downtime at home in the Philly suburbs with his family, which includes four teenagers. An avid piano and saxophone player, he enjoys jamming with his musically inclined children. He also tries to be a regular at their school events, even if it’s just, as his daughter describes it, a “boring” little track meet.

“My mom couldn’t be there because she was working, and I didn’t have a dad to be there, so I missed that,” Hair says. “So I try to go to everything they do and support them.”

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Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.