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NBCUniversal's Steve Burke anticipates big bucks in retrans fees

September 14, 2011 |  9:25 am

For more than a decade as a top executive at Comcast Corp., Steve Burke did all he could to stop the the cable operator from paying cash to broadcast networks in return for carrying their programming.

Now as chief executive of Comcast's NBCUniversal, Burke is salivating at getting big bucks from multichannel video programming distributors in so-called retransmission consent fees for NBC.

Fees from distributors along with a cut of revenue that NBC affiliates get as well should add up to "hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars," Burke said Wednesday at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference held in Beverly Hills.

Although acknowledging that retransmission consent is not a good thing for the parent firm, Burke said it will be a "very good thing" for NBC and was not even something Comcast had factored in when making plans to buy control of the content company from General Electric Co. in 2009. He said he does not expect NBC to be as vocal as Fox, CBS and ABC about retransmission consent fees, but thinks the network should land the same dollars.

Burke said NBC is still a year or two away from where it needs to be. The network has struggled in the ratings for several years and this season is premiering many new shows it hopes will give its numbers a boost.

"No network has ever been as far behind financially as NBC is," Burke said. The rate for commercials (known in the industry as cost-per-thousands), he added, is 20% less than its rivals are getting.

One of Burke's goals since taking the helm at NBCUniversal has been getting the units to work better together. He recalled that when he was coming of age in the TV business, he looked at NBC has having fiefdoms run by powerful executives such as Brandon Tartikoff and Dick Ebersol. Preferring the word "symphony" over "synergy," which he said is overused, he acknowledged that implementing cultural changes is "no small feat."

Much of Burke's conversation with media analyst Jessica Reif Cohen focused on NBC and its cable networks, but the executive did touch on the movies as well. 

"It's not an easy business right now," Burke said, adding "you go from being elated one month to not happy a month later." The priority at Universal Studios, he stressed, is "making movies that have international appeal."

On the touchy subject of putting content on various platforms without alienating or upsetting the traditional distribution and business models, Burke said the industry was becoming more sensitive to concerns about how, when, and where shows are made available. But the message he had to all the distributors of NBCUniversal content is the same.

"Ultimately we need to get paid ... otherwise the whole model breaks down."

-- Joe Flint