Harbert's Aims: Stars and Hits For E! Networks

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Broadcast-TV veteran Ted Harbert knows celebrities are E! Entertainment Television's stock in trade, and he plans to use his industry connections to smooth over any tensions between the network and Tinseltown talent.

“Viewers expect us to have full and unfettered access to the Hollywood community,” said Harbert, who joins E! Networks next week as CEO. “If we don't [have access], I have to make sure we do, and I believe I have the relationships to get us there.”

Last week Comcast Corp., E!'s majority owner, tapped Harbert — a longtime executive at the ABC network and a former colleague of Comcast Cable Communications Inc. president Steve Burke — to replace Mindy Herman as head of E! and Style.

Harbert, 49, said his goal is to make E! the prime destination for entertainment-information programming, just as ESPN is for sports.

It's a lofty aspiration. E! faces increased competition, not only from syndicated fare like Access Hollywood but from networks like VH1 and TV Guide Channel, which hired Joan and Melissa Rivers away from E! last week.

“I want to send a signal loud and clear that we consider this E!'s turf, and we want to protect it and make that turf even stronger,” Harbert said.

Herman, who denied any wrongdoing, tendered her resignation at the end of May, when allegations arose that she had abused her position and acted improperly.

Apart from her personal actions, Herman's tenure at E! drew criticism because the network took a tabloid turn — with shows like Celebrities Uncensored— that angered talent and executives alike in Hollywood. Some stars even boycotted E!, and TV critics savaged programming like The Anna Nicole Show.

Harbert, a former ABC Entertainment chairman with hits like NYPD Blue on his resume,said he will rebuild any bridges E! might have burned.

“I do want to take the opportunity to study and scrutinize those programs, which I will, but here's one thing I really believe: E! has to be user-friendly in Hollywood,” Harbert said. “We are depending on stars for some significant part of our appeal to the viewers.”

He also keeps a watchful eye on the business side of a network, he added.

“Tabloids can be a real business,” Harbert said. “I have to make sure that there's not a CPM ceiling on those kind of shows and that we are maximizing our profitability in every time period.

“The way I've done it before is be very commercial, be provocative, but be tasteful. I have to study the landscape before I find something distasteful. But I understand the concern.”

Although they didn't work closely together, Harbert and Burke were colleagues at ABC in the mid-1990s, when Burke was the chief of ABC Broadcasting.

“Whatever time we did spend together, I gravitated towards him as the leader of tomorrow, and frankly thought it was a huge loss when he left ABC,” Harbert said of Burke. “But he went on to do pretty well for himself. It is one of the key driving factors for me wanting to do this, which is the opportunity to work for Steve and the Roberts family. It is really a key part of it.”

Harbert said he shot Burke an e-mail about the E! job a few weeks ago. After several meetings, Burke offered him the slot last Tuesday.

BURKE'S A FAN

“Ted is a very energetic, experienced, affable person, and I think he'll fit very well with the Comcast culture,” Burke said in an interview. “I don't think he takes himself too seriously.

“He knows everybody in Hollywood, he's certainly a part of Hollywood without being overly Hollywood himself. He's a perfect fit from that point of view, from a cultural point of view.”

Added Burke: “You'd be hard-pressed to find someone with more programming experience and more experience in the television industry. He really has an extraordinarily strong pedigree of just what it takes to run a television network. And if you look at where E! is now, it's fully distributed, and the next big mountain to climb at E! is to try to improve the ratings. And that's going to come from programming and scheduling and things that Ted has traditionally done and done very well.”

After ABC, Harbert had a stint as president of NBC Studios, developing Crossing Jordan, and was also a producer for DreamWorks SKG. Most recently, he was a producer at 20th Century Fox Television.

“Not only do I love the idea of the E! channel, of its brand and the turf it owns, I think it has more upside than any other network in either broadcast or cable,” he said. “They've done a very good job of building this network and getting it to obviously a very profitable and successful level with a lot of brand recognition on the part of the viewers.

“It needs a couple of signature shows that make it a must-have. True Hollywood Story and Emmy and Oscar coverage are those kinds of things. But no network can rest on its laurels. It's time to build to the next level of programming success, and that's my intention.”

Harbert acknowledged losing the Rivers duo to TV Guide Channel was a blow to E! and that he was a fan of their red-carpet coverage. But he said he was “really excited by the challenge of finding the personality that can go do an even better job of delivering what people expect out of E! of those big nights.”

Herman, a lawyer who had been a top executive at News Corp. and In Demand LLC, had been considered an odd choice to lead E! when Comcast hired her.

She's quite a contrast to TV-industry insider Harbert, a programmer who might lack cable experience but has cordial relationships with Hollywood's creative community.

Harbert's past ties to ABC owner The Walt Disney Co., too, should be a plus for E!

While Comcast is E!'s majority owner and managing partner, Disney also owns a large stake, and Liberty Media Corp. has a small piece.

BIG MONEY MAKER

E!'s recent ratings performance has been lackluster. The channel hasn't broken out with a big hit, but it still performs extremely well financially.

In the second quarter, E! posted a 0.4 household rating in primetime, flat compared with a year ago, according to a Disney ABC Cable Networks Group analysis of Nielsen Media. E! was also flat in total day, with a 0.3 rating.

Sources said Comcast executives believe that E! shortsightedly became too sensational in order to try to boost its ratings.

Still, E! generated operating cash flow of $156 million last year, a tidy 49% margin (of revenue). Comcast values E! Networks (including the 84.2 million-subscriber E! and Style, with 36 million subscribers) at as much as $2.5 billion

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