The NBCUniversal chief puts the gap at as much as $1B even though NBC has “essentially the same cost structure” as ABC, CBS, and Fox. That’s bad news, right? Not to Steve Burke. He told investors at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Media, Communications and Entertainment Conference today that it “represents a huge opportunity” to grow. Burke is upbeat about collecting more cash from retransmission consent deals with pay TV distributors. NBC made “virtually nothing” from cable and satellite companies two years ago and expects to see $200M in payments this year. That should continue to grow with 75% of NBC’s distribution deals expiring over the next three years. With other networks commanding big increases — including CBS from its recent showdown with Time Warner Cable — Burke sees “no reason why we won’t draft behind other broadcasters.” NBC also should see improvement in ad rates, which he says sell at about a 20% discount to its rivals. “Our ratings are lower than we’d like them to be.” That discount “will go away” although “it may not be in a year.” He expects big improvements this year with the Winter Olympics running on NBC in February, the middle of the broadcast season. “It will be a great launch pad for all of our spring shows….We feel like we’re putting ourselves in a position to do better this fall and spring.” Burke adds that his outlays for programming are under control — appreciating “in the mid-to-high single digit range” each year, although he hasn’t set budgets for next year yet.

Burke spent less time talking about NBCUniversal’s film business, which he says will depend “very heavily on franchises and very heavily on animated films.” Theaters should do fine “as long as boys and girls want to get away from their parents and parents want to get away from their kids.” And new technologies should help. “The vast majority of people don’t see even the biggest hit movies,” he says.

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