Mike Cavanagh, New Leader of NBCUniversal, Steps Into the Spotlight

Mike Cavanagh couldn’t have picked a more tricky time to take over NBCUniversal.

Jeff Schell, who oversaw the media company before him, was fired following a sexual harassment investigation. Linda Yaccarino, who ran the company’s multibillion-dollar advertising business, abruptly left the company earlier this month to become Twitter’s chief executive officer.

NBCUniversal has lost billions on its streaming service, Peacock, as viewership continues to dwindle for traditional TV networks. And Hollywood screenwriters are on strike.

But for Cavanagh, 57, who was promoted to president of NBCUniversal’s parent company Comcast last year and recently became acting president of NBCUniversal, this is nowhere near the toughest he’s faced in his career. Maybe.

In 2008, when the U.S. financial system was on the brink of collapse, Mr. Cavanagh was a senior executive at JPMorgan Chase & Co., one of the few large banks not on the brink of collapse. He spent all night with J.P. Morgan Chief Executive Jamie Dimon and other executives working out the details of the acquisition of near-bankruptcy rival Bear Stearns.

“He’s not the type to brag,” Dimon said of Cavanagh in an interview. “He works hard, sweats the details, and doesn’t care.”

Though he’s spent much of his professional career side-by-side with the super-rich, Cavanagh, a Long Island native and father of three, comes from a middle-class background. He spent his pre-college summer pumping gasoline at gas stations, and at Yale he worked summer construction jobs to cover his expenses.

He became one of the few Comcast executives with whom Comcast CEO Brian Roberts regularly consults on the most sensitive issues. Cavanagh was in talks last year to merge NBCUniversal with video game studio Electronic Arts, but the deal never materialized.

Comcast has not named Cavanagh as the permanent head of NBCUniversal, a media empire that includes Universal Pictures movie studios, NBC Broadcast Network, NBC News and MSNBC. Comcast, however, describes his job as a long-term appointment, acting as if he intends to take on long-term responsibilities.

Since replacing Shell last month, he has traveled to Los Angeles to meet with film executives including Universal Studios director Donna Langley and animation studio Illumination chief executive Chris Meledandri. While in Los Angeles, he had dinner with horror maestro Jason Blum, behind hits like Get Out and Paranormal Activity for Universal. He also tours the Today show, visits late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and tours the NBCUniversal theme park under construction in Orlando, Florida. are planning

At those meetings, Cavanagh stressed that he had no plans to make any major changes in the coming months, according to people familiar with his early days. However, he had to deal with some unexpected curveballs.

The person said Yaccarino was not known to be Twitter’s chief executive until owner Elon Musk announced on Twitter earlier this month that he had “hired a new CEO.” A few hours later, Kavanagh called Yaccarino from her plane, instructing her to coordinate her retirement and pull her out of the company’s annual sales pitch to her advertisers. A person familiar with the conversation said the tone of the conversation was amicable, with Kavanagh wishing Yaccarino the best of luck and saying he would not interfere with her departure.

He also had to deal with the impact of complaints from CNBC anchors that led to Shell’s dismissal. Cavanagh and Roberts fired Shell from the Philadelphia law firm’s office last month, according to people familiar with the matter. On the weekend that Shell was fired, Cavanagh called NBCUniversal executives to inform them of the move and then met in person in New York to reassure them that NBCUniversal’s broader vision was fine.

And a possible writer’s strike when Mr. Kavanagh took over the government brought NBC’s late-night shows, including “Saturday Night Live,” to a halt.

Big challenges still stand in the way, including making NBCUniversal’s streaming business profitable and negotiating with Disney over future ownership of streaming service Hulu. Also troubling NBCUniversal is whether Comcast will decide to merge with another company, like Comcast tried to merge with Electronic Arts last year.

Despite those concerns, Comcast, where Mr. Kavanagh remains president, probably has some advantages that will give NBCUniversal some breathing room. The company’s stock has outperformed some of its peers this year, with cash-rich businesses like broadband and wireless services offsetting declines elsewhere.

Kavanagh has long been a powerful figure at Comcast and has been involved in some of NBCUniversal’s biggest decisions, but he remains a relative outsider in Hollywood. After working at JP Morgan, he joined the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, where he served as co-president. He moved to Comcast in 2015 and became its chief financial officer.

Hollywood runs largely on personal relationships, so it can be fickle with new arrivals and even those who have been around for a long time.

Mark Shapiro, president and chief operating officer of Hollywood entertainment and sports giant Endeavor, which represents NBCUniversal anchors such as Rachel Maddow and Alex Wagner, said Cavanagh’s name recognition in Hollywood could work to his advantage. I said yes.

“He can enter these rooms without preconceived notions and bring a fresh perspective to the industry’s most pressing challenges,” Shapiro said.

Mr. Cavanagh had already formed some friendships with NBCUniversal and his closest Hollywood executives. Blum, the founder of production company Blumhouse, said he’d known Cavanagh over the years, including having lunch at Comcast’s Philadelphia headquarters and discussing his ambitions for the company.

Craig Moffett, senior managing director of research firm SVB Moffett-Nathanson, said Comcast’s business is well-funded and needs to grow its video subscriber base significantly, so Comcast’s next said it was the traditional media company most likely to make a big deal for .

“Basically, that would be a real career-defining decision for Mike,” Moffett said.

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