A Shell Game Always Produces Victims. In This Case, Well Beyond Just The Participants

Yesterday’s news of the shocking departure of NBCU’s top dog Jeff Shell hit me especially hard.  I’ve made no secret of my deep admiration and respect for Shell, who ran the FOX Cable Network group during my period of ascent at FX, and who endorsed and embraced my ability to expand my purview and involvement from just two networks into the entire array of its portfolio.   So this terse announcement from the NBC News entity he personally oversaw evolution of from Ali Gostanian and Mirna Alsharif and Daniel Arkin struck me both as matter-of-fact and, indeed, somewhat cold:

Jeff Shell, the CEO of NBCUniversal, is leaving the company “effective immediately” after an investigation into “inappropriate conduct,” the media company’s owner, Comcast, announced in a statement Sunday.

Comcast did not specify how Shell violated policy. But in a statement, the executive said he had “an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the company.”

In a joint statement sent to Comcast and NBCUniversal employees, Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts and Comcast president Mike Cavanagh said they were “disappointed to share this news with you.”

“We built this company on a culture of integrity,” Roberts and Cavanagh said. “Nothing is more important than how we treat each other. 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.

As the day wore on and less constrained journalists joined in, we learned a bit more about all of this.  Turns out Cavanagh will be, at least temporarily, stepping into Shell’s shoes, as DEADLINE’s Dade Hayes reported:

As Comcast manages through the shocking and abrupt exit of NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell, the company has put senior exec Mike Cavanagh at the controls on an interim basis.

Cavanagh, who was promoted last October to president of Comcast, will play a central role in guiding the executive changeover and trying to keep NBCU on course. Although well-known and respected in corporate and financial circles, the Philadelphia-based exec has a much lower profile in Hollywood.

The unexpected new duties are landing on Cavanagh’s plate just months after he earned an important vote of confidence from CEO Brian Roberts and the company’s board of directors. His promotion from CFO to president made him the first person to hold the title outside of the Roberts family, and along with the new title came a contract extension through 2027.

And we even learned a bit more about the woman that filed the complaint with Comcast HR, initially cryptically described as “someone not involved with the entertainment side of the business”.  Per DEADLINE’s Anthony D’AlessandroDominic Patten and Jill Goldsmith:

Multiple sources tell Deadline that the woman who filed the complaint against NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell for inappropriate conduct was CNBC anchor and Senior International Correspondent Hadley Gamble.

The complaint was lodged within the past month, Deadline has learned. The matter went all the way to Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts through the proper channels and was handled expediently, sources said. The outside law firm hired to investigate delivered their findings to top Comcast brass within the past week, we hear.

Deadline has learned that there was communication between Shell and Gamble via company email which came to light in the investigation.

Gamble covers energy, geopolitics, and financial markets and anchors Capital Connection from CNBC’s Middle East headquarters based within Abu Dhabi Global Markets. She’s also presented the CNBC documentary franchise Access: Middle East, where she speaks to world leaders, international CEOs and philanthropists. Past guests have included Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, King Abdullah of Jordan, former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Gamble was the last Western journalist to interview Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2021 before the war in Ukraine.

Her CNBC bio also reads, “Hadley is a passionate advocate for women in the workplace and their advancement around the world. She moderated the first ever women’s business forum in Saudi Arabia and provided exclusive content to CNBC as the Kingdom lifted its decades-old driving ban”.

Beyond that, Gamble’s Wikipedia offers little more about her that these tidbits:

Gamble grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee and attended Halls High School. She earned a Bachelors of Science from the University of Miami, Florida, in 2003.[3] Hadley is from Knoxville, Tennessee in the United States. She is a cousin of famed interior designer Albert Hadley. She attended the University of Miami in Florida, and was a member of Delta Gamma sorority.

Ah, yeah.  Those Hurricane hotties.  Now I’m beginning to get it.

Now let me take a step back for just a second and preface this by asserting that, if any way, Jeff Shell conducted himself in any way, shape or form in the manner of other deposed media CEOS who literally couldn’t keep their shteckel in their pants, and behaved in any manner toward Gamble that was not at least at some point reciprocated, then this should have been and still should be a manner for authorities well beyond Comcast HR to investigate.  The Daily Mail’s James Reynolds and Melissa Koenig supply a few more details that strongly suggest that was not at all what occurred:

Deadline reported Shell began a relationship with the international correspondent some 11 years ago, continued on and off until it ended ‘a couple of years ago’.

In 2021, Gamble interviewed Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said she was too ‘beautiful’ to understand a point he had made about energy.

After the interview, body language experts claimed Gamble was flirting with Putin as a distraction tactic.

Gamble made light of the situation, uploading a photo to Instagram of her pointing to an article in Russian publication Kommersant on the interview, captioned ‘my best angle’ with a laughing emoji and #feminism tag. 

Deadline reported that Shell and Gamble had communicated by company email, as revealed during the investigation.

Shell ascended through Comcast and NBCU with extensive involvement in the company’s international businesses, relocating to London for several years, often flying solo while his longtime wife Laura was raising their family in Los Angeles.  Exactly what and why may have prompted Shell and Hadley to pursue any relationship are details that should respectfully be limited to them.  My best friend calls it the “power of the poussoir”, which is particularly exacerbated when people are far from home and, sometimes, opportunity knocks.  A woman who has essentially reveled in her ability to overwhelm a maniacal world leader certainly would seem to have some of that power.

So when the likes of The WRAP’s Sharon Waxman, a notorious champion of the #metoo movement, weighs in like this, as she did this morning, that’s when my dander gets riled up”

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.)

OK. WaxWORD.  You’ve made your point.  As waaaaay too many others continue to.  Let’s try on this purview:

Jeff Shell is a uniquely talented executive.  Since taking over for longtime Comcast ally Steve Burke in 2020, after a successful tenure as CEO of the Universal movie studio upon his return to the States in 2013, Shell has steered a leaky ship through especially rocky waters.  He championed the pivoting of traditional theatrical windows away from those venues, even before the company launched Peacock as the pandemic took over the world.  As even Waxman grudingly recounted:

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 that 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 by the pandemic have led to a significant decrease in the theatrical exclusive window from the 90-day length typically used prior to the pandemic.

More recently, Shell has been instrumental in several forward-thinking initiatives ahead of most curves.  He apparently has had protracted discussions with Warner Brothers Discovery executives about combining their struggling streaming assets; remember, Zaslav is an NBCU alum.  He has openly advocated for the end to programming the 10 PM Et time slot for the NBC network, a strategy and a business plan he knows all too intimately from his days at FOX.  He shuttered NBCSN, long a weak afterthought to ESPN and FS1, and which had struggled under several different names, including the ridiculous abbrevation VS..  He has aggressively been leading NBC’s interests in regaining rights to the NBA, which kept the sports division alive in an era when it did not have NFL football rights.  He has supposedly pursued alliances with the likes of Electronic Arts and ROKU to address some of Comcast’s white area weaknesses in gaming and distribution.  He has been a key supporter of NBC News NOW, which leverages many of its local market journalists from Miami and San Francisco and has proven to be a less politically charged compliment to MSNBC, which continues to lag well behind FOX News and seems to outperform CNN more by the latter’s even greater problems–many of which started when THEIR CEO named Jeff, who was also involved in a consensual relationship with an employee, was shown the door.

The timing of all of these revelations is especially noteworthy, as White (along with Kim Masters) continued:

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.

We’re also less than a month from the upfronts for both Peacock and NBCU, events Shell was always prominently in vogue when they they were actually held.  Instead, it will be apparently be Cavanagh that will grab the spotlight.  Cavanagh, who Hayes describes thusly:

As president, Cavanagh has strengthened his ties to CEO Brian Roberts, often channeling the thinking of the corner office by commenting publicly about a range of topics, leavening his strategic acumen with dry wit. Last month, for example, he said at a Wall Street conference that the company would be “happy” to sell its one-third stake in Hulu to Disney, which owns the rest. At a different conference in 2022, he offered a characteristically colorful-but-inside-the-lines answer when asked about the impact of turbulence in the media landscape, from streaming’s convulsions to windows debates to the erratic advertising business. “None of the upheaval out there is causing anybody inside our company to run around with their hair on fire wondering should we change plans,” Cavanagh said. “We bury our heads and go do what we know we need to do to deliver great results organically over the next bunch of years.”

And as White and Masters further recounted, it’s not as if Shell was fully embraced by those in Philly, despite his track record:

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.”

So I’m not so sure that the Roberts, long a family-controlled business that rose from regional cable operators to media czars, might have had this trump card in their pocket for a while, and decided to play it at a time when the spotlight on their stock was heightened.  And certainly a savvy business reporter like Gamble, what with her world view and her Christian Loubotins, would have some detailed insight on all of this.  And someone with her previous ties to FOX News just might have been somewhat motivated by perhaps some non-Comcast server e-mails with folks who just might have an ax to grind with someone who ultimately ran MSNBC, and somehow chose Jen Psaki to headline their latest new show.

Perhaps Gamble just might have thought she was destined for something like that, and was blindsided by a redhead who seems to do OK defending both Joe an Hunter Biden?

Perhaps Cavanagh is merely the Cousin Greg of Comcast?

Oh, you think I’m overreacting?  Prior to a few hours ago, would any of you hearing of someone like Jeff Shell being “inappropriate” have caused you to react any less skeptically than you may be reacting now?

In owning up to the relationship, and quietly exiting without an interview, Shell has already demonstrated far more class and personal integrity than anyone that Waxman tries to compare him to.  So anyone who wants to paint Shell as a villain, spare me.   He will deal with the fallout that may occur from Laura (By the way Sharon, how DARE you let your first draft of your hit piece refer to Laura as “Leslie”–how ignorant!!!) in private,  As he is entitled to.

And as many trades reminded, Jeff made more than $19M in 2021, so whatever it will cost him for his legal fees and support, he’s more than covered in that regard.

To me, the real victims are the Comcast, and especially the NBCU employees, who now will have to make these pivotal decisions without the talents and acumen of Shell.  There’s real risk to their stock with the wrong decisions.  And, honestly, while I don’t know Mike Cavanagh from Tom Cavanagh, I do know Jeff Shell well enough to question whether he’s truly as capable of making them.

So I won’t ask any questions of him, or of Shell.  But I will offer that some questions be asked of Gamble:

— Why would you, after a decade of this, choose to come forward now?  What changed, if anything?

— Do you really believe that, as an informed employee and someone who probably knows the value of their stock more than most, did your co-workers–and, indeed, your own finances–well by choosing to complain to corporate HR?   Did you do this on your own, or did someone from Philadelphia–or, heaven forbid, across the street from NBC’s Rockefellfer Center headquarters–perhaps encourage it?

— Why would you think that your own career at the NBC family of networks should be more guaranteed than the likes of Jeff Zucker’s paramour Alison Camarotta, who soon followed Zucker into exile after his CNN ouster?  Could it be because you’ve been told you’ve been spared by some who may simply wanted to push Shell out of the way?

I’m sure she won’t answer me.  But note this, Hadley:  should the ax fall on you, there’s likely to be an opening soon for a business reporter slot at that other media outlet across Sixth Avenue.  I hear a former CNBC hottie might be on the outs.

And you might be encouraged to spill the tea in the same fawning manner that Elon Musk and Donald Trump recently did with that TV dinner scion who seems to nod like a bobblehead a lot these days.   Hey, if you can mesmorize Putin, I’m sure Tucker Carlson will be like chum for you.

That power of the poussoir, you know.

And don’t tell me you don’t.

So congrats to all involved in finding a way to toss aside one of the more accomplished, intelligent and provocative media executives of this century, all in the name of what Roberts referred to in his “reluctantly” Sunday afternoon memo to his employees:

“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.”

From this view, aside from his poor choice of e-mail server, Shell did scant little to truly create a less safe and respectful workplace.  He did indeed violate policy, and as someone who oversaw Meyer’s ouster, and was not far from the front lines in the Matt Lauer and Andy Lack situations, if one lives by the sword, you die by it.  Again, he quickly admitted to it, unlike so many others (including Meyer).  So, again, spare me the comparisons.  The Jeff Shell I knew is nothing like any of them.  And just because he fell victim to the power of the poussoir doesn’t impact my opinion.

 So now he’s gone.  Rich, perhaps, but permanently tarnished.  And NBCU is a much less talented company as a result.

WTG, Hadley Gamble.  Hope you don’t overcook your rabbit.

Until next time…

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