Questions Swirl About NBCUniversal’s Future After C.E.O.’s Shocking Firing

Since the abrupt ouster on Sunday of NBCUniversal’s chief executive, Jeff Shell, the company’s at-least-for-now successor has begun settling into the job.

Mr. Shell’s acting replacement, Mike Cavanagh, the president of Comcast, which is NBCUniversal’s parent, was dispatched from Philadelphia to NBCUniversal’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters this week to meet with dozens of top executives. Mr. Cavanagh has also visited the set of the “Today” show, reached out to news anchors like Lester Holt and met the late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers.

But whether Mr. Cavanagh moves into the job permanently, or Comcast eventually chooses someone else for the position, the new leader will be in charge of a business that is the subject of constant rumors and speculation about its future direction, including questions like:

Will Brian Roberts, the chief executive of Comcast, combine NBCUniversal with another company, an option he has previously explored?

Will Mr. Roberts pursue a sale or a full acquisition of the streaming service Hulu, which NBCUniversal owns jointly with Disney?

And will the NBC broadcast network give up an hour of its prime-time lineup and hand it over to local affiliates, or begin negotiations for broadcast rights for the National Basketball Association?

NBCUniversal is far from being in dire straits. It is the home of fabled institutions like “Saturday Night Live” and “Today,” as well as lucrative franchises like “Despicable Me” and “The Real Housewives.” It generated $39 billion in revenue last year, a 14 percent increase from the year before.

Lester Holt, anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” and host of “Dateline NBC” on the set of his weekday evening news set in New York.Credit…Richard Drew/Associated Press
Mike Cavanagh has met with the late-night host Jimmy Fallon, above, this week.Credit…Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

But the company also owns several cable networks such as USA and Bravo that are hemorrhaging viewers. Its streaming service, Peacock, is growing quickly but still has far fewer subscribers than many of its competitors and is projected to lose $3 billion this year.

These issues, which have been looming for months, were brought back to the forefront after Mr. Shell’s sudden departure. Comcast announced on Sunday that Mr. Shell was leaving the company after an investigation into a complaint of “inappropriate conduct.”

His exit came after Hadley Gamble, a senior international correspondent at CNBC, had filed an internal complaint that leveled accusations of sexual harassment and sex discrimination, according to her lawyer, Suzanne McKie. Comcast executives began an investigation after Ms. Gamble filed the complaint in late March. On Monday, the company said in a filing Mr. Shell had been fired after an investigation corroborated accusations of sexual harassment.

Mr. Roberts and Mr. Cavanagh met with Mr. Shell at the offices of a law firm in Philadelphia on Friday and told Mr. Shell he was being fired, according to two people with knowledge of the internal discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Mike Cavanagh, left, with Brian Roberts, the chief executive of Comcast, in 2019. The two have final say on the big issues facing NBCUniversal.Credit…Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Mr. Shell was taken aback by the sudden turn of events. He had been meeting with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., in the days leading up to his firing, making plans to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on Saturday, according to two people familiar with the matter. He has hired a high-profile crisis communications expert, Risa Heller, and a well-known lawyer.

Mr. Shell declined to comment on the circumstances of his departure but said in a statement that he was “profoundly upset with how much pain and embarrassment I have brought to my family.”

“I am solely focused on making amends to them,” Mr. Shell said.

Comcast is still looking into elements of Ms. Gamble’s complaint related to sexual discrimination, according to two people familiar with the investigation.

Comcast declined to comment on the investigation. Regarding the future of Comcast’s leadership, a spokeswoman referred The New York Times to remarks made by Mr. Roberts on Thursday’s first-quarter earnings call, calling Mr. Cavanagh “a fantastic executive and operator.”

Mr. Roberts has sought to reassure investors since Mr. Shell’s departure. On the earnings call on Thursday, he made a brief statement in support of Mr. Cavanagh and NBCUniversal’s executives. He praised NBCUniversal’s bench of veteran leaders, and said Mr. Cavanagh would “step in at the helm” of the company while remaining president of Comcast after a “tough moment.”

Comcast’s share price rose about 10 percent after the company’s earnings call on Thursday.

In a show of support, Mr. Roberts joined Mr. Cavanagh in New York for NBCUniversal’s executive committee meeting, which Mr. Shell used to run, according to three people with knowledge of the gathering. During the meeting, Mr. Cavanagh reassured assembled leaders that he would be there for the foreseeable future. Next week, Mr. Cavanagh is expected to head out to Los Angeles to meet with West Coast executives.

There is a consensus among executives at NBCUniversal that Mr. Shell’s departure will not greatly affect the company’s TV, film and news assets in the short term. Mr. Shell’s biggest decisions needed approval from Mr. Cavanagh and Mr. Roberts, who have final say on the big issues facing the company. “I don’t think the business is going to miss a beat,” Mr. Cavanagh said during the earnings call.

Even though Mr. Cavanagh has taken the reins, he is unlikely to give up responsibilities across the broader Comcast empire, which includes cable and wireless businesses.

Mr. Cavanagh is widely believed to be the most likely internal candidate to succeed Mr. Roberts. A full-time job running just NBCUniversal would in some ways be a demotion. He is the only president in the company’s history who doesn’t belong to the Roberts family, which controls Comcast.

Still, some executives at NBCUniversal think the media assets need a dedicated leader. There are too many decisions to be taken across a wide variety of businesses — including theme parks, film studios and TV programming — as well as more existential decisions to be made for it to be anyone’s part-time job.

Mr. Cavanagh believes that Comcast has a stronger hand than many of its competitors in the media industry, which include Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery. Profits from Comcast’s broadband and wireless businesses insulate the company somewhat from the ad sales slump affecting many of its peers, giving it cash to invest in streaming.

And NBCUniversal’s movie studio and theme parks businesses are growing, with recent bright spots including the opening of “Super Nintendo World” at Universal Studios and the release of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” which has been a hit at the box office. On Thursday, Comcast said its profits grew slightly in the first quarter despite a decrease in ad revenue and slower growth in its broadband business.

The speculation that Mr. Roberts and Mr. Cavanagh might spin off NBCUniversal has swirled for months, fueled by reports that they considered combining the company with the video game studio Electronic Arts last year. With many of NBCUniversal’s rivals teaming up to beef up their streaming businesses, some analysts have speculated that Mr. Roberts and Mr. Cavanagh are hunting for another big deal.

One potential target discussed by analysts is Warner Bros. Discovery, the newly minted media colossus created by the fusion of WarnerMedia — owner of HBO and the Warner Bros. movie studio — and Discovery, owner of cable networks like HGTV and TLC.

Craig Moffett, a senior managing director of the SVB MoffettNathanson research firm, said that such a deal could give the combined company enough heft to pay for all the movies and TV shows that would win over enough subscribers to make the service profitable. “But most Comcast investors hate that idea,” he added.

“I think Mike will inevitably put his stamp on the business,” Mr. Moffett said, “and in this case that inevitably means some role for mergers and acquisitions, or divestitures.”

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