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Ex-Disney exec Burke knows his new prey

Wed, 02/11/2004 - 7:00pm
Staff

Los Angeles Times

February 12, 2004 Thursday

Home Edition

Brian Roberts once said that he knew he had hired the right executive away from Walt Disney Co. when Michael Eisner himself called to yell at him.

Six years later, Roberts, Comcast Corp.'s chief executive, turned to that former Disney executive, Stephen Burke, to help sell investors and analysts on the cable TV company's bid for the entertainment empire.

For Burke, it was old hat: In 1996, he had played the role of affable diplomat for Disney in its takeover of Capital Cities/ABC.

At a news conference in New York on Wednesday, Roberts often handed the microphone to Burke, president of Comcast's cable operations. Burke suggested that Comcast would bolster the ABC television network's "weak" performance and squeeze more profit out of Disney units from top to bottom.

"There is a chance," Burke said, "to reignite the world's greatest entertainment businesses."

In his 12 years at Disney, where he ended his career as president of ABC Broadcasting, Burke was credited with creating the company's once-hot retail chain, overhauling the moribund Euro Disney theme park and managing Disney's digestion of Capital Cities/ABC. His father, Daniel Burke, had been chief executive of Capital Cities in the early 1990s.

Now, insiders at Comcast speculate, Burke would replace Disney Chairman and CEO Eisner if the deal goes through.

Burke didn't return telephone calls Wednesday. But a friend who has known him since his Disney days, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the 45-year-old has a desire to resuscitate the operations his father helped build.

"He does have more than a professional interest," this person said. "There's a little bit of emotion. His dad had this great asset. Everyone kind of thinks that some of the promise of the company hasn't been realized."

At Disney, Burke became frustrated when his bosses wouldn't back his plan to expand the radio division, Burke associates said. Though he had been cited by industry watchers as destined for bigger things in Burbank — some saw him as heir apparent to Eisner — Burke told friends he had few qualms about leaving in 1998.

Some in the business questioned why he would switch to Comcast, a family run company where he would have almost no chance of succeeding Roberts, the 44-year-old son of the founder.

In an interview with Cable World magazine, Burke said: "I would rather be No. 2 working for somebody I really respect."

At Comcast, Burke is regarded as a steady hand.

"He doesn't panic. He doesn't get angry," said Jeff Shell, the former head of News Corp.'s Fox cable networks and now chief executive Gemstar-TV Guide.

Burke, a marathon runner who has said he watches little television, last week was named a "Ranger" by President Bush's re-election campaign, a designation given to those who have raised more than $200,000 for the campaign war chest. He is the brother of Bill Burke, chief executive of the Weather Channel. Their uncle, James, was the chief executive of Johnson & Johnson who saw the company through the Tylenol tampering crisis.

In 1992, six years after he joined Disney, Burke was assigned to fix the money-losing Euro Disney park. Burke — who prepared by taking two hours of French lessons daily — slashed the workforce to 11,000 from 16,000 and stabilized the operation.

Four years later, he was brought back to the U.S. from Paris to help oversee Disney's integration of Capital Cities.

"It doesn't matter what mess he was thrown into" at Disney, said ex-Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who added that he tried to recruit Burke to work for Dreamworks SKG, where Katzenberg is a principal. "Wherever he went, he did great. And people love working for him. He's a great leader."

Since Burke joined Comcast, the company has grown through a series of deals, including the purchase of AT&T Corp.'s cable division.

An early champion of the company's bid to sell high-speed Internet connections, Burke has lately been working on bulking up its sales force on the bet that Comcast can seize a slice of local advertising dollars away from broadcast TV stations — like those owned by Disney's ABC — in markets nationwide.

Said Roberts at the news conference Wednesday: "Steve is very intimate with where Disney's been, where Disney is and where it might go in the future."

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