After the shock ouster of NBC Universal’s CEO, industry executives come up with a tale of two Jeff Shells. For some, Shell’s admission that he was leaving because of “an inappropriate relationship with a woman at the company” came as a bolt from the blue. For others not so much.
“I’m totally amazed,” says a manager who says he was close to Shell. “Jeff should be the buttoned-up guy.” When asked if he suspected inappropriate behavior, a former NBCU executive said, “No, not at all. Not even a whiff. Not even a clue.” Another, while not a Shell fan, says: “I’ve never seen anything like it [kind of behavior]. Never. I’ve never seen him flirtatious.”
A different picture emerges from other NBCU sources. Shell “always had a crush on someone,” says a (female) former insider. “I knew he had a crush and was saying inappropriate things. He had a guy. He liked a pretty brunette.” Another (also female) recalls that Shell was “overly friendly” towards certain women at the company: “I wouldn’t call him creepy, but definitely sickly.” And two (males) former NBCU executives said they heard rumors about Shell’s behavior. One adds: “Looking at how the company has reacted” – that is, firing Shell for good reason, without a soft landing – “I think it shows where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
At the time, only one relationship was made public: Hadley Gamble, an Abu Dhabi-based senior international correspondent at CNBC, filed a complaint, allegedly after learning her contract, which expires this year, would not be renewed. Gamble’s attorney, Suzanne McKie, confirmed that a sexual harassment and gender discrimination complaint had been filed, but declined to comment further. A source with deep ties to NBCU says there has been at least one other incident of comments being made to an assistant. A source close to Shell says: “Jeff was fired because of one thing, this inappropriate relationship he had and for which he apologized. There is nothing else.” NBCU declined to comment.
Shell joined NBCU in 2001 and was considered a rising star. He was chairman of NBCUniversal International, based in London, for two years before being appointed chairman of Universal’s entertainment group in September 2013. In January 2020 he became CEO of the company. The relationship with Hadley, who joined CNBC in 2010, is said to have started 11 years ago. It’s unclear where she and Shell met or if the relationship lasted.
In recent months there have been signs that Shell was no longer in favor of Comcast’s leadership. After gaining oversight of the television division, Shell forced an unpopular reorganization, and he’s also fought an uphill battle to launch and grow the Peacock streaming service. He was perceived as “a loose gun with no filter,” says a longtime NBCU executive. (Shell was nicknamed “Shooter” earlier in his career because of his habit of shooting from the hip.) Fugitive former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann has repeatedly called Shell a liar on the Internet in recent days.
An industry source says that when Comcast’s Brian Roberts held merger talks with Paramount Global Chairwoman Shari Redstone in 2021, he offered to hire Bob Bakish, Paramount’s president and CEO, to run the combined companies (although Roberts would retain ultimate control wanted). In 2022, Roberts explored a merger of NBCU with gaming company Electronic Arts that would have put EA CEO Andrew Wilson at the helm.
Increasingly anxious, says an industry source, Shell began spending more time in New York to cement its relationship with Roberts.
One point many Hollywood insiders wonder about is how Shell could have been careless enough to engage in inappropriate behavior, especially since he very much killed then-Marketing President Josh Goldstine in 2018 and NBCU Vice-Chair Ron Meyer in August 2020 publicly fired, both for allegedly inappropriate behavior. In light of what might be considered loose cannon behavior in the face of this, Shell – along with film studio head Donna Langley – told employees the company was taking action against Goldstine based on information that is “detailed and the we believe to be both credible and indicative of an unacceptable climate.” Goldstine established that he was unemployed, commenced legal proceedings and in January 2020 won an arbitral award believed to be worth $20 million . He is now President of Worldwide Marketing at Warner Bros.
Meyer was ousted due to a relationship with aspiring actress Charlotte Kirk that resulted in him making hush money payments. While acknowledging Meyer’s behavior was unacceptable, several industry insiders believe Shell was unnecessarily harsh in forcing Meyer out of the company. “Ron Meyer was with the company for 25 years and this woman didn’t work there,” says the top manager of another company. Shell “was the ruthless executioner,” this person continues. “Given the way he treated Ronnie – how are you anyway? He was very ruthless. He thought he knew everything.”
This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to login.