NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell says he's been diagnosed with COVID-19

Meg James
Jeff Shell is chief executive of NBCUniversal.  (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

NBCUniversal Chief Executive Jeff Shell said he has tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the highest-profile media executive known to have contracted the disease.

"I recently have been feeling under the weather and just learned that I have tested positive for COVID-19," Shell wrote in an email Thursday to NBCUniversal staff. "Although the virus has been tough to cope with, I have managed to work remotely in L.A. and am improving every day."

Shell, 54, began feeling ill March 15, a couple of days after NBCUniversal began shutting down its productions and operations. The New York media company, like others, asked employees to work from home to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Shell returned to Los Angeles, where he also began working from home. He received his test results Wednesday.

He joins the list of other notable media figures who have contracted the virus, including Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, and Lucian Grainge, chairman and chief executive of Universal Music. Unlike Grainge, who was treated at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Shell has not required hospitalization.

Shell became CEO of NBCUniversal in January, taking over for Steve Burke, who had run the company for nine years. Burke remains on as executive chairman.

NBCUniversal has been reeling from the closures. Its film and television production has been shut down, along with its Universal Studios theme parks in Los Angeles, Florida and abroad. On Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee announced that it would postpone the 2020 Summer Olympics for a year, dealing a major blow to NBCUniversal, which holds the rights to televise the Games. The company had already received $1.25 billion in commitments from advertisers to appear in NBCUniversal's Olympics coverage, and now it is scrambling to renegotiate contracts and work out new arrangements with dozens of advertisers.

The Tokyo Olympics' postponement also disrupted NBCUniversal's promotional plans for its upcoming streaming service, Peacock. The company had planned to launch the service July 15, just days before the start of the Games. Shell, in his note, said the debut of the "critically important" streaming service would go forward as planned this year.

One veteran NBC News employee has succumbed to the virus: Larry Edgeworth, an audio technician who was based in NBC's headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in midtown Manhattan. Edgeworth, 61, also had other health issues, according to his wife.

Shell, in his note, spoke to the challenges that workers have been facing: "In the short term, the goals are simple. Take care of each other and take care of our viewers," Shell wrote.

He also said the media giant, a subsidiary of Philadelphia cable giant Comcast Corp., has committed $150 million to help TV, film and theme park workers who have been idled by the coronavirus response.

Streaming giant Netflix made a similar commitment, pledging $100 million to help workers struggling financially because of the coronavirus shutdowns.

"We are working to resume these activities as soon as possible, but of course not until it is safe to do so," Shell wrote. "In the meantime, we recognize that a sudden halt to production creates a significant financial hardship for many. To that end, we have committed over $150 million across our film, television and parks businesses to help our employees and other workers, and to at least partially bridge the period before normal operations can restart."

A former Fox television executive, Shell ran Comcast’s small cable channels, including its sports networks, before Comcast purchased NBCUniversal in 2011. He then managed NBCUniversal’s international operations but returned to his home in L.A. in 2013 because Comcast wanted a Hollywood outsider to lead its West Coast operations.

The Los Angeles native became chairman of the Universal film studio in 2013 and was considered an unlikely pick because he had no experience in the movie business.