Mike Cavanagh couldn’t have picked a trickier time to take over NBCUniversal.
Jeff Shell, who oversaw the media company before him, was fired after an investigation into sexual harassment. Linda Yaccarino, who ran the company’s multibillion-dollar ad business, left abruptly this month to become the chief executive of Twitter.
NBCUniversal is losing billions on its streaming service, Peacock, while viewership of its traditional TV networks continues to fade. And Hollywood’s writers are on strike.
But for Mr. Cavanagh, 57 — who recently became the acting head of NBCUniversal after his promotion last year to be president of Comcast, NBCUniversal’s parent company — it may not come close to the toughest situation he has faced in his career.
In 2008, when the U.S. financial system was on the brink of failure, Mr. Cavanagh was a senior executive at JPMorgan Chase, one of the few major banks that was not at risk of collapse. He spent time alongside Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan’s chief executive, and other executives during all-nighters to work out the details of acquiring Bear Stearns, a rival on the verge of bankruptcy.
“He’s not a chest-thumper,” Mr. Dimon said of Mr. Cavanagh in an interview. “He works hard, he sweats the details, and he gives a damn.”
Though he has spent much of his professional career rubbing shoulders with the ultrawealthy, Mr. Cavanagh, a Long Island native and father of three, comes from a middle-class background. He spent the summer before college pumping gas at a filling station and covered expenses at Yale by working summer construction jobs.
He has become one of the few Comcast executives whom Brian Roberts, the company’s chief executive, regularly consults on the most sensitive matters. Mr. Cavanagh was involved in discussions last year to combine NBCUniversal with the video game studio Electronic Arts, a deal that never came to fruition.
Comcast has not named Mr. Cavanagh as the permanent head of NBCUniversal, a media empire that includes the Universal Pictures movie studio, the NBC broadcast network, NBC News and MSNBC. But Comcast has described his job as a long-term appointment — and he has been acting as if he plans to be in charge for the long run.
Since taking over for Mr. Shell last month, he has traveled to Los Angeles to meet with film executives, including Donna Langley, the head of Universal Studios, and Chris Meledandri, the chief executive of the animation studio Illumination. While in Los Angeles, he had dinner with Jason Blum, the horror maestro behind Universal hits like “Get Out” and “Paranormal Activity.” He has also toured the “Today” show and visited the late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and he is planning a tour of an NBCUniversal theme park under construction in Orlando, Fla.
In these meetings, Mr. Cavanagh has emphasized that he’s not planning on making any major changes for the next few months, according to a person with knowledge of his early moves in the job. But he has had to deal with some unexpected curveballs.
Mr. Cavanagh was unaware that Ms. Yaccarino had been selected to serve as Twitter’s chief executive before Elon Musk, the company’s owner, announced that he had “hired a new CEO” on Twitter this month, the person said. Hours later, Mr. Cavanagh called Ms. Yaccarino from a plane to coordinate her exit and pull her from the company’s annual sales pitch to advertisers. The tone of the conversation was friendly, according to a person familiar with the conversation, with Mr. Cavanagh wishing Ms. Yaccarino well and saying that he wouldn’t stand in the way of her departure.
He has also had to manage the fallout from a complaint lodged by a CNBC anchor that led to Mr. Shell’s dismissal. Mr. Cavanagh and Mr. Roberts fired Mr. Shell from the offices of a law firm in Philadelphia last month, people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Cavanagh called senior executives at NBCUniversal the weekend Mr. Shell was fired to inform them of the change, and he met with them in person in New York afterward to reassure them that the broader vision for NBCUniversal wasn’t in question.
And the writers’ strike, a possibility when Mr. Cavanagh took over, has ground to a halt NBC’s late-night shows, including “Saturday Night Live.”
Big challenges still loom, including getting NBCUniversal’s streaming business to profitability and negotiating with Disney over the future ownership of the Hulu streaming service. Also hanging over NBCUniversal is the question of whether Comcast will decide to combine it with another company, as it attempted to do last year with Electronic Arts.
Despite those concerns, Comcast, where Mr. Cavanagh remains president, has some points in its favor that perhaps give NBCUniversal some breathing room. The company’s share price has increased this year, outpacing some of its peers, and it has cash-rich businesses like broadband and wireless services that offset declines elsewhere.
Though Mr. Cavanagh has been a powerful figure at Comcast for years, involved in NBCUniversal’s biggest decisions, he remains a relative outsider in Hollywood. After his run at JPMorgan, he joined the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm where he was co-president. He moved to Comcast in 2015 to become its chief financial officer.
Hollywood, which runs in large part on personal relationships, can be fickle toward new arrivals and even some who have been around for many years.
Mark Shapiro, the president and chief operating officer of Endeavor, the Hollywood entertainment and sports colossus that represents NBCUniversal anchors like Rachel Maddow and Alex Wagner, said Mr. Cavanagh’s profile in Hollywood could work in his favor.
“He can enter these rooms unencumbered by preconceptions and bring a fresh perspective to the industry’s most pressing challenges,” Mr. Shapiro said.
Mr. Cavanagh had already forged some friendships with the Hollywood executives whom NBCUniversal is closest to. Mr. Blum, the founder of the production company Blumhouse, has said he has gotten to know Mr. Cavanagh over the years, having lunch with him at Comcast’s headquarters in Philadelphia to discuss Mr. Blum’s ambitions for his company.
Comcast’s cash-rich businesses, combined with the need to significantly expand the number of video subscribers, makes Comcast the traditional media company most likely to do the next major deal, said Craig Moffett, a senior managing director of SVB MoffettNathanson, a research firm.
“Fundamentally, that’s going to be the real career-defining decision for Mike,” Mr. Moffett said.