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Dan Burke, former CEO of Capital Cities/ABC, dies at 82

October 26, 2011 | 10:16 am

Dan Burke dies

Dan Burke, one of the architects of the modern television industry and a former president and chief executive of Capital Cities/ABC, died Wednesday at  82 in Rye, N.Y., of complications from type 1 diabetes, according to his family.

Along with Tom Murphy, the chairman of CapCities, the low-key Burke built the broadcaster into a giant that in 1986 bought ABC for $3.5 billion. His partnership with Murphy was similar to the one shared by CBS founder Bill Paley and his long-time No. 2 Frank Stanton, albeit much more friendly. While Murphy focused on long-term strategy, Burke ran the day-to-day operations of the company. Burke retired from Capital Cities/ABC in 1994, two years before Murphy sold the company to Walt Disney Co.

In a statement, Murphy said Burke "shaped the culture of the company, with an emphasis on accountability, directness, irreverence and community service," adding that he had a "wicked sense of humor that made every day more fun."

Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger, whose rose up the ranks of ABC under Burke, said he was a "gifted executive and natural teacher, and a man with a strong sense of right and wrong."

Although Burke was well-regarded among leaders of the media industry, he also was viewed as something of a hatchet man at ABC by many after Capital Cities took over the company. All the networks went through radical cutbacks in the mid-to-late 1980s after new owners came in, and ABC was no exception.

While there was grumbling about the layoffs of thousands of workers that Burke engineered, ABC was also considered to be the smoothest-running of the three broadcast networks during his and Murphy's tenure. CBS under its new owner Larry Tisch and NBC's new parent General Electric Co. were constantly scrutinized and second-guessed, but Murphy and Burke were credited for building an efficient and profitable company.

According to Les Brown's Encyclopedia of Television, Burke was nicknamed "the Cardinal" by some for his "strict standards and withering stare." 

An Albany, N.Y.,  native and Korean War veteran, Burke received his undergraduate degree from the University of Vermont and then an MBA from Harvard. He joined Capital Cities in 1961 after spending five years at General Foods' Jell-O division. Burke started at the company's Albany television station and quickly rose through the ranks to lead the company's television and publishing divisions; in 1990, he  succeeded Murphy as chief executive.

After retiring, Burke, a huge baseball fan, created a minor-league baseball team in Portland, Maine.

Burke also served as a director of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and chairman emeritus of New York City's Presbyterian Hospital (now Columbia Presbyterian).

Business smarts ran in Burke's family; his older brother James was a chief executive of Johnson & Johnson. Two of Burke's sons followed him into the media industry; Steve Burke is currently chief executive of NBCUniversal, and Bill Burke was a former senior executive at Turner Broadcasting and also co-wrote Ted Turner's autobiography.

Other survivors include Burke's wife Harriet, son Frank, daughter Sally and 14 grandchildren.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Dan Burke. Credit: ABC