May 24, 2024

Wearing a nondescript gray T-shirt with a backstage pass dangling from his neck, Jeff Shell looked more like a snowy-haired roadie than a VIP as he milled about in the wings of the Sahara Tent ahead of Blink-182’s set at Coachella on April 14. The NBCUniversal CEO had spent the day at the festival with his wife, Laura, in anticipation of the band’s first show in nearly a decade. Later, he took a seat alongside a leather-clad Kourtney Kardashian, whose long-running “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” holds a significant presence in the NBCUniversal spread, with all 20 seasons of the reality show having recently moved from Hulu to Peacock. But Shell wasn’t there on business. He enjoys close ties with the band’s bassist and co-lead vocalist, Mark Hoppus, a friendship forged thanks to their kids attending the same school in L.A.

While all appeared normal on the surface for the smiling Shell clan, an investigation was underway in New York, with interviews stretching as far as Abu Dhabi. As the band played such hits as “What’s My Age Again,” a giant sign behind Hoppus loomed with the words “Speed Bump Ahead,” offering an apt preview of what was to come. A career-halting bomb was about to drop that would later read more like a discarded “30 Rock” plotline in which Jack Donaghy gets caught in a relationship with an anchor and is promptly bounced by his Kabletown bosses. In reality, Shell had been engaged in a nearly decade-long extramarital affair with CNBC anchor Hadley Gamble and was now being accused of sexual harassment.

Nine days after the Coachella excursion, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts would deliver the news to Shell that the investigation corroborated the complaint. Shell was fired, effective immediately. His sprawling kingdom of entertainment and news assets was pulled out from under him, leaving a town that has become desensitized to C-suite sex scandals bamboozled.

On that same day, as Blink-182 appeared at Coachella for their second weekend, Hoppus yelled out in an apparent show of support for Shell’s wife, “We love you, Laura!”

In the immediate aftermath, Comcast’s stock price took a moderate dip — 1.4% — in the first day of trading post-bombshell as conspiracy theories swirled among Hollywood’s chattering class, with everyone from Anthony Pellicano to Vladimir Putin to Brian Roberts being tagged as the hidden hand behind the Shell shiv.

“It just seems too convenient for this to happen so fast,” says one top deal-maker who is close to Shell. “Obviously, there’s been some talk about Warner Bros. Discovery and Comcast combining in some fashion, and there was this question of who would run the whole thing, Jeff or [WBD CEO David] Zaslav. This clears the way for it because it becomes very simple.”

But according to multiple sources familiar with the investigation, the timing coincided with Gamble’s contract situation. Shell, 57, and the 40-something Gamble had been entangled from 2012 to 2021, beginning when he was running the international TV group in London. Gamble, who is based in Abu Dhabi, and has been asking to relocate stateside, recently learned that her contract would not be renewed when it expired this summer. With her days numbered, she then lodged a complaint naming Shell, and that prompted a third-party investigation conducted by the New York law firm Gibson Dunn. (A person familiar with the inner workings of the network says Shell would have had no involvement in Gamble’s contract status.)

Gamble declined comment beyond a statement issued by her U.K. lawyer Suzanne McKie that said, “The investigation into Mr. Shell arose from a complaint by my client of sexual harassment and sex discrimination. Given these circumstances, it is very disappointing that my client’s name has been released and her privacy violated.” (Though multiple outlets identified Gamble by name after Shell acknowledged that he had an “inappropriate” relationship with an unnamed woman, Variety did not name her until after she came forward via McKie.)

The investigation unearthed email exchanges between Shell and Gamble that “corroborated the allegations” of sexual harassment, and the CEO was fired “with cause,” according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing by Comcast. NBCUniversal declined further comment for this story. With that, Shell joined a recent list of studio chiefs felled by sexual misconduct allegations, including Leslie Moonves, Kevin Tsujihara and Ron Meyer, the latter fired by Shell himself at a time when he was allegedly carrying on with Gamble.

“That’s a fact that went unnoticed by no one,” says another top deal-maker, who was disgusted by Shell’s double standard and astonished by his lack of judgment. As such, the Meyer case served as a precursor for the Shell shocker. Back in August 2020, Shell sat opposite then-NBCUniversal vice chairman Meyer during a lunch at CityWalk Hollywood when Meyer confessed to his boss that he had had an affair with actress Charlotte Kirk in 2013 and had reached a $2 million settlement with her in 2019. Five days later, Shell dumped Meyer. The bitter aftertaste led some to speculate that Meyer’s longtime associate, private investigator Anthony Pellicano, was involved in Shell’s downfall.

“I had absolutely nothing to do with it, although I’m very happy to see it occur,” Pellicano tells Variety.

Furthermore, Meyer was fired without cause given that Kirk was not involved directly with the studio and therefore was not an employee or contractor, and the former vice chair is said to have received a hefty payout. By contrast, Shell is poised to receive nothing.

“It’s a very, very difficult burden to fire somebody for cause, and everybody’s contract is different in terms of how to define cause,” says a source familiar with the investigation. “In this case, the contract was clear, and the actions were clear. So firing him for cause was the appropriate and required move, and Jeff didn’t get anything.”

Still, Shell has retained litigator Patty Glaser. “You don’t hire Patty if you’re going to go off quietly into the night,” says attorney Bryan Sullivan of Early Sullivan, who is a onetime mentee of Glaser’s. “They’ll put up a fight, and she’s very capable. While [the meaning of] ‘sexual harassment’ could run the gamut, the basic thing is it has to be severe and pervasive. Dismissing someone at that level likely means this was more than just a casual incident or situation and that the conduct crossed a very clear line in the company’s mind.” (Any battle between Shell and NBCUniversal will likely play out in arbitration and will not be made public.)

Though little is known about the specifics of the alleged Gamble harassment, Duncan Levin, a celebrity defense attorney whose clients include Harvey Weinstein and Anna Delvey, says the fallout can extend well beyond the place of employment. “We all have a visceral sense of what sexual harassment is, which is inappropriate, unwanted sexual advances in the workplace or at work or a workplace that is rife with inappropriate behavior,” says Levin. “But it’s also a potential crime. So there’s potential criminal charges that could also lie in some of this as well. It’s a fairly serious allegation.”

While some saw the fingerprints of Pellicano, others pointed in a different direction — to Russian leader Vladimir Putin. In July 2016, Shell was detained in Russia and ordered to leave the country. (His detainment stemmed from his role as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency that oversees Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, both considered to be Western propaganda by the Kremlin.) At the time, Shell told friends that the detainment was more serious than had been reported, that Russian authorities wiped the contents of his phone and that he was released only after his sister, Dana Shell Smith, the then-U.S. ambassador to Qatar for the Obama administration, intervened.

Five years later, Gamble became the last Western journalist to interview Putin prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a sit-down that drew criticism from Russian state media, which suggested that Gamble was a “sex object” sent to distract Putin. Even domestic news outlets like the New York Post noted the flirtatious interplay between the anchor and the leader.

“Russia would have had access to information about the relationship [between Gamble and Shell],” says a source close to Shell. “Whether this has anything to do with anything, it probably doesn’t. But it is a curious coincidence.”

Regardless, Gamble’s Putin interview drew eye rolls internally at CNBC after she posted an image of herself on Instagram holding up the front page of a newspaper that showed the pair onstage at an angle that showed off her legs. “My best angle,” she wrote, with a “feminism” hashtag. She also posted a shot of a cake she was sent featuring Putin’s face and his comment about her being “too beautiful.” (Sources say the relationship with Shell ended around the same time as the Putin interview.)

Gamble was part of a small CNBC team based in Abu Dhabi. She is known for launching a Middle East-focused program from her bureau and for being a key player in securing Saudi and Gulf advertising and sponsorship for the network. One finance world source says Gamble was well connected with the top finance players who traveled through the region. Another source who worked for CNBC on the international side says Gamble was not particularly popular at the organization.

“She’s the person the camera crews don’t want to work with, and that’s a telltale sign,” says the source. “She’s hardworking in some ways, but she’s realized there’s more value to bagging a few big guests a few times a month, rather than working away at lower-level stories on a daily basis.” A few years ago, she tried to move over to NBC News, but CNBC management blocked her from jumping ship, and it’s believed there might have been some bitterness since that happened.

The relationship with Gamble would have been ongoing when Shell fired Meyer as well as NBC News star Matt Lauer and former Universal marketing head Josh Goldstine for alleged sexual misconduct. (In 2020, Universal was ordered to pay Goldstine $20 million in what was dubbed a #MeToo misfire.)

“Imagine all the people he fired for this and the ones he did not. I imagine many want to reopen [their] cases,” says one high-profile litigator. Some say Comcast should have seen red flags when in 2011 the company handed Shell the reins of NBCUniversal’s international division and sent him to London. Before joining Comcast in 2004, Shell had a long run at Fox Networks Group.

A former Fox colleague was unsurprised by the Gamble news and says Shell was always “aggressively flirty” with women there. Though the source was unaware of any formal complaints against Shell, it was noted that the environment at Fox back then was cutthroat and anything-goes. Another knowledgeable source refers to Shell as “a well-known dog” during his Fox era.

“Everyone knew about his reputation,” that source adds. “Roberts wanted to get rid of him last summer. This fell into his lap.” (Shell’s contract was set to expire in 2024.)

In fact, one insider says Roberts was never a fan of Shell, given the latter’s reputation in cable circles for being brash at times and for having unbridled ambition. Roberts cared what his fellow cable moguls thought, and that’s why he was never completely on board the Shell train. Likewise, Comcast brass knew Shell was something of a loose cannon who was told repeatedly, “You can’t say that to talent. You can’t say that to execs,” according to the insider. There was even talk of giving Shell CEO coaching. All the while, Shell “had his crushes” and was known to lavish unwanted attention on certain female employees, the insider adds. But others pushed back on that characterization, with one top industryite calling Shell an “honorable man,” while a producer with business at Universal was “shocked” by the Gamble revelations.

Now, all eyes are trained on NBCUniversal’s future, including who, if anyone, will succeed Shell. The kingdom, now without a king, stretches from NBC to USA, Syfy, Bravo and E!, as well as Spanish-language Telemundo, Universal Kids and streaming service Peacock. And, of course, there’s that one-third stake in what-should-be-done-with-it streaming service Hulu. If a sale to, or merger with, Warner Bros. Discovery is in NBCUniversal’s future, Roberts wouldn’t need to fill the void. In the interim, Shell’s staff will now report to Roberts acolyte Michael Cavanagh, who could be the front-runner if Comcast does replace Shell. The company also could go with an internal candidate like Universal chief Donna Langley or hire the most eligible studio executive without a job at the moment, Fox and Disney alum Peter Rice. Either way, someone will need to staunch Peacock’s losses (the streamer is projected to lose $3 billion this year, Kardashians notwithstanding).

“It’s all up to who Brian Roberts settles on and how Wall Street reacts,” says Peter Newman, head of NYU’s MBA/MFA graduate dual degree program at Tisch School of the Arts. “But it might be business as usual if they stay with Cavanagh. Even if they bring in any of the names being thrown around, I can’t see there being a major change in the company philosophy as a result of this. Jeff Shell is not a household name, and two household names [Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon] were canned within 24 hours [of Shell]. But at the end of the day, this really doesn’t mean anything to the public.”

Shirley Halperin, Gene Maddaus, Manori Ravindran and Michael Schneider contributed to this report.