July 24, 2024

In the aftermath of the shock ouster of NBC Universal’s CEO, industry executives present a tale of two Jeff Shells. To some, Shell’s acknowledgment that he was departing because of “an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the company” came as a bolt from the blue. To others, not so much.

“I’m totally flabbergasted,” says an executive who says he was close to Shell. “Jeff was supposed to be the buttoned-up guy.” Asked if he had suspicions of improper conduct, a former NBCU executive says, “No, not at all. Not even a whiff. Not even an inkling.” Another, though not a fan of Shell, says, “I’ve never seen any of that [kind of behavior]. Never. I’ve never even seen him be flirtatious.”

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A different portrait emerges from other NBCU sources. Shell “always had a crush on someone,” says one (female) former insider. “I knew he had crushes and said inappropriate things. He had a type. He liked a pretty brunette.” Another (also female) remembers Shell being “overly friendly” with certain women at the company: “I wouldn’t call him creepy but definitely cringey.” And two (male) former NBCU execs say they were aware of rumors about Shell’s conduct. One adds, “When I look at the way the company responded” — that is, firing Shell for cause, with no soft landing — “I think it shows where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” 

At this point, only one relationship has been made public: Hadley Gamble, an Abu Dhabi-based senior international correspondent at CNBC, filed a complaint, reportedly after learning that her contract, which expires this year, was not going to be renewed. Gamble’s attorney, Suzanne McKie, confirmed that a complaint of sexual harassment and sex discrimination was filed but declined further comment. A source with deep connections to NBCU says there was at least one other incident involving comments made to an assistant. A source close to Shell says: “Jeff was fired for one thing, this inappropriate relationship, which he owned and apologized for. There is nothing else there.” NBCU declined to comment.

Shell joined NBCU in 2001, and was seen as a rising star. He served as chairman of NBCUniversal International, based in London, for two years until he was named chairman of Universal’s entertainment group in September 2013. He became CEO of the company in January 2020. The relationship with Hadley, who joined CNBC in 2010, is said to have begun 11 years ago. It’s unclear where she and Shell met or whether the relationship was ongoing. 

In recent months, there have been signs that Shell was no longer in favor with Comcast leadership. After gaining oversight of the television division, Shell imposed an unpopular reorganization, and he has also been waging an uphill struggle to launch and grow the Peacock streaming service. He was perceived as “a loose cannon who had no filter,” says one longtime NBCU executive. (Shell had the nickname “Shooter” earlier in his career because of a habit of shooting from the hip.) Volatile former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann has been repeatedly calling Shell a liar online in recent days. 

An industry source says when Comcast’s Brian Roberts engaged in merger talks with Paramount Global chairwoman Shari Redstone in 2021, he offered to put Paramount president and CEO Bob Bakish in charge of the combined companies (though Roberts wanted ultimate control). In 2022, Roberts explored a merger of NBCU with the gaming company Electronic Arts that would have put EA CEO Andrew Wilson in charge.

Increasingly anxious, an industry source says, Shell started spending more time in New York in an attempt to shore up his relationship with Roberts.

One point that has many Hollywood insiders marveling is how Shell could have been unwary enough to engage in improper behavior, especially as he had very publicly fired then-marketing president Josh Goldstine in 2018 and NBCU vice chairman Ron Meyer in August 2020, both for alleged inappropriate conduct. In what might be considered loose-cannon behavior given what followed, Shell — along with film studio chief Donna Langley — told staff that the company was taking action on Goldstine on the basis of information that was “detailed, and we believe both credible and indicative of an unacceptable climate.” Finding himself unemployable, Goldstine initiated a legal proceeding and in January 2020 won an arbitration award believed to be in the ballpark of $20 million. He’s now president of worldwide marketing at Warner Bros.

Meyer was ousted as the result of an involvement with aspiring actress Charlotte Kirk that led to him making hush-money payments. While acknowledging that Meyer’s conduct was unacceptable, several industry insiders feel that Shell was unnecessarily harsh in rushing Meyer out of the company. Says the top executive at another company, “Ron Meyer was with the company for 25 years and that woman didn’t work there.” Shell “was the ruthless executioner,” this person continues. “In light of the way he treated Ronnie — how do you even? He was very reckless. He thought he knew it all.” 

This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.