NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell Departs Following “Inappropriate Relationship”
Parent company Comcast and Shell jointly announced the news Sunday in a statement that noted the two have mutually agreed on the decision. He’ll depart effective immediately.
“I had an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the company, which I deeply regret,” Shell said in his own statement. “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.”
The media and entertainment executive has helmed the company since taking over as CEO on Jan. 1, 2020, reporting directly to Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts. Shell was first announced as the successor to NBCUniversal’s previous CEO, Steve Burke, in December 2019. In a memo to staff Sunday, Roberts wrote that Shell’s direct reports will report to Comcast president Mike Cavanagh for the time being.
“We are disappointed to share this news with you. We built this company on a culture of integrity. Nothing is more important than how we treat each other,” the memo adds. “You should count on your leaders to create a safe and respectful workplace. When our principles and policies are violated, we will always move quickly to take appropriate action, as we have done here.”
“Please know that NBCUniversal is performing extremely well operationally and financially, and we couldn’t be more enthusiastic about our position and prospects going forward,” it continues. “We are fortunate to have an experienced, world-class group of executives leading this incredible company.”
In the role of CEO, Shell oversaw the company’s wide portfolio, which includes news and entertainment television networks, the Universal film studio, streaming service Peacock, as well as significant TV and sports production operations, the television stations group, theme parks and more.
The town was shocked by the firing, with other execs texting their stunned reaction to others. Even those inside Universal were shocked by the announcement of Shell’s departure, which follows a company-led probe conducted by outside counsel into a complaint of “inappropriate conduct.”
“We’re dealing with this in real-time,” says one exec. “Absolutely reeling,” says another Universal insider. Internally, many considered him to be straightforward, deeply involved and supportive of the various businesses and leadership teams.
The exit comes ahead of an important, and busy, week for the conglomerate. On Wednesday, Universal will present its upcoming slate of movies to theater owners gathered for their annual convention in Las Vegas following the triumphant success of runaway blockbuster The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which has grossed nearly $870 million at the global box office in its first three weeks. In his former job as head of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, Shell often attended CinemaCon, and his abrupt departure is sure to be a topic of discussion at the show.
And on Thursday, Comcast is scheduled to report earnings. Shell was expected to take a victory lap over the success of the Super Mario, and for Peacock’s continued growth.
Hollywood doesn’t like interlopers, so Shell had to win the town over when he was named chair of Universal’s movie studio in 2013 after running NBCU’s international operations for a decade. He was seen more as a business suit than a studio mogul, and had little direct experience when it came to running a film empire. But that view has changed in the time since.
On the film side, Shell’s vision had an enormous impact on the entire industry. Early on and even before the company launched Peacock, he was a fierce advocate of collapsing theatrical windows so that a title could be made available earlier in the home. When the pandemic struck, Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chair Donna Langley, who had succeeded Shell in the job, and her team signed a historic deal with theater owners allowing movies to become available on premium VOD as short as 17 days after their release on the big screen. Shell’s determination had paid off.
Shell was a a savvy steward when serving as chair of the entertainment group, so it was no surprise when he was announced as CEO of NBCU in 2019.
But when he assumed the CEO role in 2020, it was a rough start. “I don’t know that he ever recovered with the group in New York. He took over the company at a very difficult time,” one exec tells THR. “He was tasked to grow Peacock with no budget … His personality was not in sync [with the Comcast culture]. He always shot from the hip. He was cavalier. The transition from business development executive to CEO at a company with a lot of moving parts is difficult. Then add in the pandemic and the disruption in the industry.”
A source on the TV side of the business said that they were “flabbergasted” by the news Sunday. And noted that Shell was playing an active role in the company’s upfront pitch to advertisers. Peacock is set to make its pitch on May 2, while NBCU is set to kick off TV’s upfront week the morning of May 15. Shell has usually spoken during the presentation at Radio City Music Hall.
Kim Masters contributed to this report.