Harbert Sets Sights on G4, Style Site Upgrades

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Las Vegas— Comcast Entertainment Group will “redo” Stylenetwork.com this year and grapple with how to convince the demographic that has made G4 cable’s most-podcasted network to tune into the linear channel, CEO Ted Harbert said last week.

As a featured speaker at the 2007 National Association of Television Programming Executives Conference and Exhibition here, Harbert also said that 2006 was “the year of the brand polish” at E!, but 2007 will be the year of the show, fueled by the development of new series such as Paradise City, a reality show now filming in Las Vegas and produced by Ryan Seacrest.

Harbert called E!’s affiliation with Seacrest “the best move we’ve made in the last two years,” adding he’s never seen someone work so hard.

DEFENDS STERN CALL

Part of the “polish” included canceling the show that features Howard Stern. The late-night show had been E!’s top rated show for 10 years. Harbert defended the action, acknowledging that it cost the channel ratings points but noting that its content limited the show’s reuse and advertiser interest. The slot is now filled with a same-day rerun of The Daily 10, which is 100% monetized through ad support, he noted.

E!’s financial fortunes are boosted by the international success of the network. Harbert, who called the global business E!’s “latest growth engine,” said the entertainment channel is now seen in 135 countries. That division is also creating content for the international feeds, some of which, like a special called Sexiest has been repurposed for the U.S. network.

E! Networks ownership was consolidated into Comcast in Nov. 2006, and Harbert said that he is happy having a single corporate parent. Although he misses the ABC Disney executives which served on the board of E! when that company was a co-owner, he noted that “sometimes corporations bicker.” Comcast and The Walt Disney Co. had different objectives for the channel, he added.

As a part of Comcast, he was able to go to executives in Philadelphia and get a bigger development budget for E!, he said, adding he’ll now ask for more money for show creation for G4.

“It’s a good brand but it hasn’t had money for [program] development,” he said. As a standalone channel, G4 has spent precious resources on legal issues and operating expenditures, he said. By bringing the channel into E!’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters, funds can be focused on programming.

The problem with G4, he added, is it’s counter-intuitive. It covers video games for a demo that would rather play games than watch TV about them. A boost in the programming budget will be devoted to moving those viewers off the Web and onto TV.

Harbert is relishing his job in cable.

NEW TV ECONOMICS

“If I’d have known about cable 10 or 15 years ago, I’d have jumped a long time ago,” he joked. He then slammed broadcasters for continuing to adhere to a 22-hour a week primetime schedule and pouring millions into pilot season, hoping to win the lottery by discovering the next Lost.

Young viewers, such as his children, watch two or three broadcast shows, then spend the rest of the time on the Web. Given the fragmented viewing market, by following the traditional approach, one broadcast scheduler might do well, another might do OK and “the rest suck wind,” he said.

Acknowledging those realities, Comcast Entertainment Networks is involved in a lot of digital businesses. “I don’t know if we’ll make money, but we have to make the investment,” he said.

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