The Ouster of Jeff Shell as NBCUniversal CEO – Have Powerful Men Learned Nothing?

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Another day, another mogul. This time it is Jeff Shell, the seemingly straight-arrow CEO of NBCUniversal, who was abruptly fired on Sunday over an affair with a subordinate. He apologized that he had let “my colleagues down,” but barely had time to tell his wife and family, much less his team, before he was out the door.

Powerful men never learn, it seems.

It’s been five and a half years since the #MeToo movement began, led by women who spoke out about being assaulted by the powerful producer Harvey Weinstein. Since then various degrees of alleged sexual misconduct have led to the ouster of CBS chief Leslie Moonves, CNN chief Jeff Zucker, NBCUniversal chairman Ron Meyer, Warner Bros CEO Kevin Tsujihara and many other men at the top of the Hollywood food chain.

And still, Jeff Shell, 58, didn’t learn — to the embarrassment of the company, his executive team and of course the mogul himself who, after 19 years at NBCUniversal, now finds his career at an end. Meanwhile Meyer, who was fired abruptly by Shell in August 2020 for failing to disclose an extortion attempt by actress Charlotte Kirk, was taking no small amount of pleasure in the news, according to a knowledgeable individual. (Meyer was not given time to call his family before the announcement.)

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Hollywood was shocked by the sudden move on Sunday. For one thing, the buttoned-up Shell didn’t seem the type, many observed. Secondly, the terse apology by Shell and equally succinct company statement about Comcast’s commitment to integrity from CEO Brian Roberts and President Mike Cavanagh offered little detail and no context.

NBCUniversal will survive just fine. Cavanagh, who became president in October, will take over Shell’s position, though his title will remain unchanged. A Comcast insider said that there would be no further leadership changes, meaning Cavanagh is the permanent replacement for Shell.

Division heads like Donna Langley, Universal Pictures chairwoman; TV and streaming chairman Mark Lazarus along with Frances Berwick and Susan Rovner, chairs of the NBC Entertainment Networks; Kelly Campbell, president of Peacock and DTC; and Cesar Conde, the head of NBCUniversal’s news group and other top executives all remain in place.

NBCU has a strong bench, and that will stand the company in good stead during a period of undeniable turbulence in entertainment as both streaming and theatrical businesses continue to shift. Comcast’s stock price, which closed Friday at $37.74, has recovered significantly from its lowest point last year of $29. The company reports earnings Thursday, with four analysts lowering estimates for the quarter in the past two months, according to Zacks Investment Research.

The company also faces upcoming negotiations with Disney over the fate of Hulu, in which Comcast owns a minority stake. Either Comcast or Disney can compel the sale of that stake to Disney, but it’s not clear Disney wants to keep Hulu.

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Inside NBCUniversal, executives contacted by TheWrap expressed shock and professed to knowing nothing about the matter. As one put it to TheWrap starkly, before declining further comment: “I’m in shock.”

Here’s what was known: Shell, who divided his time between the NBCU base at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan and the studio in Burbank, and whose family home is in the small town of Ojai north of Los Angeles, had a sexual relationship with a female subordinate.

The former employee then lodged a complaint which sparked an investigation led by outside counsel. After a brief investigation, Shell admitted to the relationship, which led to the immediate decision for him to exit the company.

Deadline reported Sunday that Shell’s accuser was CNBC correspondent Hadley Gamble, who is currently based in Abu Dhabi. A Comcast representative did not respond to a request to confirm the identity of the employee. An individual familiar with the affair said it stretched back 11 years.

Shell succeeded Steve Burke as NBCUniversal CEO at the start of 2020, after working for the previous five years as the chairman of the Universal Film and Entertainment Group. Under his leadership there, Universal Pictures successfully revived the “Jurassic Park” franchise into the lucrative “Jurassic World” sequel trilogy and developed partnerships with production companies like Jason Blum’s horror studio Blumhouse and Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions.

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Shortly after taking charge of NBCUniversal, the COVID-19 pandemic began and led Shell and his team at Universal to make the industry-changing decision to release the animated film “Trolls World Tour” on video on demand instead of waiting for theaters to reopen. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Shell said the profits earned from customers stuck in COVID lockdown “exceeded our expectations and demonstrated the viability of PVOD.”

As part of the pandemic response, Shell leaned heavily into the Peacock streaming service, which now has about 20 million subscribers, far behind top competitors like Netflix and Disney+ or even Paramount+, though growing quickly.

As the severity and length of the pandemic became clearer, Universal’s pivot on “Trolls World Tour” would end up sparking industry-wide experiments by all studios on how to release their films with the theatrical model thrown into uncertainty. While Hollywood as a whole has recently recommitted to releasing films in movie theaters first, the experiments conducted during the pandemic led to a significant decrease in the theatrical exclusive window from the 90-day length typically used prior to the pandemic.

Prior to Universal, Shell also served as president of Comcast Programming Group and Fox Cable Networks Group.

Comcast has not released its annual proxy statement disclosing executive compensation for 2022. In 2021, Shell received $21.5 million, a 30% increase from his 2020 pay.

Shell’s exit is certainly a loss to the company, but his stunning failure to take seriously the lessons of the #MeToo movement represents a cost to the culture at large. A graduate of Berkeley and Harvard, a father, a husband to his wife Laura Fay Shell, Shell appears to have failed to learn the most basic lesson of corporate leadership in the post-#MeToo world.

And if Shell could not read the writing on the wall, who will be next?

Jeremy Fuster contributed to this article.

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