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NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell exits, citing ‘inappropriate relationship’ at company

NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell exits, citing ‘inappropriate relationship’ at company

NBCUniversal Chief Executive Jeff Shell has stepped down after three years in the top role due to “an inappropriate relationship,” parent company Comcast Corp. announced Sunday, making him the latest high-powered Hollywood player to lose his job over misconduct.

Comcast said in a statement that the company and Shell “mutually agreed” that he would depart effective immediately, after an investigation into inappropriate behavior led by outside counsel.

“Today is my last day as CEO of NBCUniversal,” Shell said in a statement. “I had an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the company, which I deeply regret. I’m truly sorry I let my Comcast and NBCUniversal colleagues down, they are the most talented people in the business and the opportunity to work with them the last 19 years has been a privilege.”

Comcast does not plan to immediately start a search for Shell’s successor.

Instead, Comcast President Mike Cavanagh will take over Shell’s senior executive team and lead the entertainment company in the interim, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and Cavanagh said in a note to employees.

Nine executives, including Universal Filmed Entertainment Group Chair Donna Langley, NBCUniversal television and streaming Chair Mark Lazarus, entertainment networks Chair Frances Berwick and NBCUniversal News Group Chair Cesar Conde, had reported to Shell.

“We are disappointed to share this news with you,” Roberts and Cavanagh said in the memo. “We built this company on a culture of integrity. Nothing is more important than how we treat each other. You should count on your leaders to create a safe and respectful workplace.”

The nature of the inappropriate relationship was unclear, and Comcast and NBCUniversal executives declined to elaborate.

The woman with whom Shell had the inappropriate relationship was the person who filed the complaint, according to two knowledgeable people who were not authorized to comment. She is a longtime journalist at the company, the sources said.

One knowledgeable person said the woman who filed the complaint alleging inappropriate conduct by Shell was CNBC anchor and senior international correspondent Hadley Gamble.

Gamble was not immediately available for comment Sunday night, and a representative for Shell declined to comment. Deadline first reported Gamble had filed the complaint.

Comcast said it acted “quickly” after receiving a complaint and launching the outside investigation.

The shake-up happened suddenly.

Shell was involved in his regular duties all last week, according to sources familiar with the situation. He had traveled to Philadelphia, where Comcast is headquartered, on Thursday, participating in festivities to honor Roberts, who had received the William Penn Award from the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia.

Employees were shocked by Shell’s departure. Few people internally were aware of the investigation.

Comcast executives declined to say when they received the complaint.

The company decided over the weekend that Shell needed to go, according to the knowledgeable people.

Shell, 57, was not immediately available for comment.

“When our principles and policies are violated, we will always move quickly to take appropriate action, as we have done here,” Roberts and Cavanagh said in their note.

Shell’s departure comes at an inopportune time for NBCUniversal, which has been struggling to forge a clear path in the streaming age and remain a go-to source of news and entertainment for millions of viewers. Streaming service Peacock, launched in 2020 under Shell’s watch, has lagged much of the competition, including Disney+.

Comcast is set to report quarterly earnings Thursday, and next month is a crucial period for NBCUniversal’s television division.

The all-important advertising sales season kicks off in mid-May. Broadcast network NBC has been grappling with lower ratings and has had difficulty developing new hits to supplement aging mainstays such as “Law & Order: SVU” and “The Voice.”

A key decision that Shell had been weighing was whether NBC should abandon original programming in the 10 p.m. prime-time hour and return that hourlong block to TV stations for local newscasts.

For now, NBC is planning to continue to provide programming during the hour, including some of television producer Dick Wolf’s procedural dramas, but the debate underscores the challenges in keeping broadcast networks relevant and profitable in the digital age.

Shell was expected to play a pivotal role in Comcast’s negotiations with Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger over the fate of streaming service Hulu. Disney has the controlling stake in Hulu, and Comcast owns 33%. Comcast nearly four years ago agreed to sell its stake to Disney for about $9 billion by January 2024.

But Iger has lately shown less enthusiasm for creating general entertainment, including original programs for Hulu, leading analysts to speculate that Disney will try to sell the service. Disney is in the middle of a dramatic cost-cutting program, with a major round of layoffs expected to begin this week, including at Hulu. NBCUniversal has also undergone multiple rounds of cost-cutting.

In addition, film and TV studios are in high-stakes negotiations with the Writers Guild of America to forge a new labor agreement by May 1. Failure to reach a deal would result in the first screenwriters’ strike in 15 years.

Shell was a trusted Comcast executive for nearly two decades. He became NBCUniversal’s CEO in January 2020, succeeding longtime chief Steve Burke, who ran the company for nearly a decade.

The Los Angeles native started his career at investment bank Salomon Bros. after earning a degree in economics and applied mathematics from UC Berkeley and an MBA from Harvard.

He went on to work at Walt Disney in strategic planning. He worked a variety of jobs for 11 years at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., including a year as CEO of the troubled Gemstar-TV Guide International, which Fox then co-owned. He joined Comcast in 2004, first managing the company’s small TV channels such as E! and the Golf Channel.

After Comcast bought NBCUniversal in 2011, Burke sent Shell to London to learn the international business. It was clear that Burke saw Shell as his successor after Burke put Shell in charge of the Universal film studio in 2013, where he led the studio during some of its most profitable years.

His abrupt departure comes after multiple Hollywood executives in recent years have been toppled because of their questionable behavior with women, including at NBCUniversal.

The company ousted longtime Universal studio executive Ron Meyer in August 2020 after learning he made hush-money payments to an actress to cover up an old affair. At the time, Shell said in a statement that Meyer “acted in a manner which we believe is not consistent with our company policies or values.”

Last year, former NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Zucker also was forced to resign from the top job at rival CNN after acknowledging a relationship with a colleague. In 2019, Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara left the Burbank studio over an affair with the same woman as in the Meyer situation. CBS chief Leslie Moonves was forced out in 2018 amid allegations that he had abused women in the 1980s and 1990s, which Moonves has denied.

Shell appeared to exhibit little tolerance for scandals during his tenure. After The Times’ investigation into questionable finances and a lack of Black members within the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., Shell made it clear that the HFPA’s Golden Globes telecast was not welcome on NBC, prompting a yearlong hiatus for the awards show.

After enduring years of criticisms that NBCUniversal had botched its handling of allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein and former “Today” anchor Matt Lauer, Shell signaled a hard line, ushering out longtime NBC News Chief Andy Lack.

Times staff writer Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.

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