Mike Cavanagh, new head of NBCUniversal, steps into the spotlight

Mike Cavanagh couldn’t have picked a harder time to acquire NBCUniversal.

Jeff Shell, who ran the media company before him, was fired following a sexual harassment investigation. Linda Yaccarino, who ran the company’s multibillion-dollar advertising business, left the company abruptly this month Become CEO of Twitter.

NBCUniversal is losing billions on its streaming service, Peacock, while viewership on its traditional television networks continues to decline. And Hollywood writers are on strike.

But for Mr Cavanagh, 57 – who recently took over as acting head of NBCUniversal after being promoted to president of Comcast, NBCUniversal’s parent company last year – it may not be anywhere near the toughest situation he’s faced in his career was.

In 2008, when the US financial system teetered on the brink of collapse, Mr. Cavanagh was an executive at JPMorgan Chase, one of the few major banks not on the brink of collapse. He spent all night with JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon and other executives to work out the details of the acquisition of Bear Stearns, a rival on the verge of bankruptcy.

“He’s not a real breast-slapper,” Mr Dimon said of Mr Cavanagh in an interview. “He works hard, he takes care of the details and he doesn’t care.”

Although he has spent much of his professional career working with the super-rich, Mr. Cavanagh, a native of Long Islander and father of three, comes from a middle class background. He spent the pre-college summers pumping up gas at a gas station and supported his expenses at Yale with summer construction jobs.

He has become one of the few Comcast executives who regularly consults Brian Roberts, the company’s CEO, on the most sensitive issues. Mr Cavanagh was involved in talks last year to merge NBCUniversal with video game studio Electronic Arts, a deal that never materialized.

Comcast has not named Mr. Cavanagh permanent head of NBCUniversal, a media empire that includes the Universal Pictures film studio, the NBC broadcast network, NBC News and MSNBC. But Comcast has described his job as a long-term tenure — and he’s acted as if he plans to take on the responsibilities long-term.

Since succeeding Mr. Shell last month, he has traveled to Los Angeles to meet with film execs including Donna Langley, head of Universal Studios, and Chris Meledandri, chief executive of animation studio Illumination. While in Los Angeles, he dined with Jason Blum, the horror maestro behind Universal hits like “Get Out” and “Paranormal Activity.” He has also toured the “Today” show, visiting late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and is planning a tour of an NBCUniversal theme park under construction in Orlando, Florida.

At those meetings, Mr. Cavanagh stressed that he doesn’t plan on making any major changes in the next few months, according to a person who knows about his early moves in the position. But he had to deal with some unexpected surprises.

Mr Cavanagh was unaware that Ms Yaccarino had been selected as Twitter’s CEO until Elon Musk, the company’s owner, announced that he had “hired a new CEO” on Twitter this month, the person said. Hours later, Mr. Cavanagh called Ms. Yaccarino from a plane to coordinate her exit and stop her from attending the company’s annual sales pitch to advertisers. The tone of the conversation was friendly, according to a person familiar with the conversation, with Mr Cavanagh wishing Ms Yaccarino well and saying he would not stand in the way of her departure.

He also had to deal with the consequences A Complaint A motion filed by a CNBC moderator resulted in Mr Shell’s sacking. Mr Cavanagh and Mr Roberts fired Mr Shell from the offices of a Philadelphia law firm last month, people familiar with the matter said. Mr Cavanagh called NBCUniversal executives over the weekend that Mr Shell was fired to inform them of the change. He then met them personally in New York to assure them that NBCUniversal’s broader vision was not in question.

And the writers’ strike that was possible when Mr Cavanagh took office has brought NBC’s late-night shows, including Saturday Night Live, to a standstill.

Big challenges lie ahead, including making NBCUniversal’s streaming business profitable and negotiating with Disney over future ownership of streaming service Hulu. NBCUniversal is also wondering if Comcast will decide to merge with another company, as it tried with Electronic Arts last year.

Despite these concerns, Comcast, where Mr. Cavanagh remains president, has some arguments in its favor that may give NBCUniversal some breathing room. The company’s stock price has risen this year, outperforming some of its peers, and the company has cash-strapped businesses like broadband and wireless services that can offset declines elsewhere.

Although Mr. Cavanagh has been an influential figure at Comcast for years and is involved in key NBCUniversal decisions, he remains a relative outsider in Hollywood. After his time at JPMorgan, he joined the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, of which he was Co-President. In 2015, he joined Comcast to become its Chief Financial Officer.

Based in large part on personal connections, Hollywood can be moody towards newcomers and even those who have been around for many years.

Mark Shapiro, president and chief operating officer of Endeavor, the Hollywood entertainment and sports giant that represents NBCUniversal hosts such as Rachel Maddow and Alex Wagner, said Cavanagh’s profile in Hollywood could work in his favor.

“He can enter these spaces unencumbered by prejudice and bring a fresh perspective on the industry’s most pressing challenges,” said Mr. Shapiro.

Mr. Cavanagh had already formed some friendships with the Hollywood executives NBCUniversal is closest to. Mr. Blum, the founder of the Blumhouse production company, said he had met Mr. Cavanagh over the years and had lunch with him at Comcast’s Philadelphia headquarters to discuss Mr. Blum’s ambitions for his company.

Comcast’s cash-strapped businesses and need to significantly increase video subscribers make Comcast the traditional media company most likely to land the next big deal, said Craig Moffett, chief executive officer of SVB MoffettNathanson, a research firm.

“Basically, that’s going to be the really career-defining decision for Mike,” said Mr. Moffett.

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