NBC Universal Tries to Untangle Its Lifestyle Networks by Bringing Them Together

Inside the Company's Plan to Conduct Business More Nimbly

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The Kardashians
The Kardashians Credit: E! Entertainment

Pop quiz: What cable network carries "The Real Housewives," "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" and "Sisterhood of Hip Hop?"

The answer isn't one network, but three -- respectively, Bravo, E! and Oxygen, which along with the Esquire Network are part of the Lifestyle Networks group formed six months ago by NBC Universal.

It's the tall task of the group's president, Frances Berwick, to carve out individual identities for these entertainment networks that touch on style, celebrities and pop culture through loud reality programming that often skews female.

"This is one of the critical things for the upfronts this year," said Ms. Berwick, who added E! and Esquire to her oversight of Bravo and Oxygen when NBC Universal formed the group in September. "It has been a great challenge to figure out, 'Where do all of these networks exist and where is the overlap?'"

Differentiating E!, Bravo and Oxygen in particular has been a challenge for ad buyers, said David Campanelli, senior VP-director of national broadcast, Horizon Media. "They need to define what those networks are and create some space."

To that end, NBC has been rethinking the focus of E!; diversifying Bravo's programming; and repositioning Oxygen to bring in more young, multicultural women. It also replaced Style Network with Esquire in 2013.

Bonnie Hammer, chairman, NBC Universal Cable, said the goal is to conduct business more nimbly. "The scale is ginormous, yet so perfectly targeted," she said. "Advertisers can go across the portfolio and find women who have blond hair, blue eyes and purple toenails."

Where there have been overlaps, NBCU has been working to create clear divides. This is especially true with E! and Bravo, where there is about 25% duplication of audience.

In E!, Ms. Berwick inherited a network that's struggled to launch new reality franchises, has lost several high-profile faces in recent months, and whose biggest hit, "Keeping Up With The Kardashians," is almost eight years old. E! has shed more than 10% of its total audience in the season-to-date, averaging 508,000 viewers in prime time, and has seen a 9% drop in the 18-to-49 demo. That's in line with cable as a whole, but not NBC Universal's goal.

Ms. Berwick admits E!, which rebranded with the "pop of culture" tagline last year, had departed from its core mission. Now it's returning to its roots of catering to voracious celebrity aficionados. "It is still very much pop culture and celebrity focused. … But I think we were pushing against the margins of that and starting to overlap with other networks," Ms. Berwick said.

To help revive the network, 13-year NBCU veteran Adam Stotsky was elevated in September to general manager of E!, adding to his duties as president of Esquire Network. "We are sharpening the E! brand lens to super-serve that audience," Mr. Stotsky said.

The focus for E! is on prime time. The network is doubling its original hours of programming over the next year and expanding to new nights with series like "Stewarts & Hamiltons," centered around the families of musician Rod Stewart and Hollywood icon George Hamilton, and "Wags," short for "women and girlfriends of sports."

E! will also continue to develop a pipeline of scripted projects to complement "The Royals," its first venture into scripted TV. The network renewed "The Royals" for a second season in January, even before the first season debuted.

But it's really the Kardashians that keep advertisers interested. E! has not only renewed the series for another four seasons, but picked up yet another spinoff: "Dash Dolls," which will follow the employees of the sisters' fashion boutique. "Other than being a Kardashian network, E! has lost its way," Mr. Campanelli said. "E! was a must-buy 18-to-49 network, but has struggled over the last few years."

The network's other series staple, "Fashion Police," is in the middle of a shakeup. Following the death of Joan Rivers, the departure of Kelly Osbourne and the short-lived run with Kathy Griffin, who resigned following a dust-up, the series is now taking a hiatus with plans for a creative reboot in the fall.

As E! doubles down on prime time, it's moving away from late night, with no plans to rebuild the daypart following the departure of Chelsea Handler at the end of last year.

"Late-night isn't our focus right now," Ms. Berwick said. "We felt like we could make more of a mark and drive viewership by focusing on scripted and reality. It plays better; it repeats better. If we found the perfect person to build up a late-night show, maybe, but those shows are hard and late-night right now is incredibly competitive. It felt like there was much more potential by focusing on prime."

Executives at NBC Universal, part of Comcast's cable-and-entertainment empire, hope that Ms. Berwick will be able to do for E! what she has done for Bravo, where she has overseen hits like the "Real Housewives" franchise, "Watch What Happens Live" and "Top Chef."

But even Bravo has had to contend with waning viewership for traditional TV. Total audience is down 14% in prime time to 950,000 season-to-date, while the 18-to-49 demographic declined 12%.

"What we are trying to do is diversify a little bit beyond the boundaries of what we have been doing and try to encourage co-viewing," said Ms. Berwick, to draw in both males and females and viewers who don't watch much reality TV.

'Comedians of L.A.' star Brandon T. Jackson
'Comedians of L.A.' star Brandon T. Jackson Credit: Ilya Savenok/NBCU

Her plan for Bravo includes a slate of 10 new programs, including a "Below Deck" spinoff set in the Mediterranean and a road-trip show with "Real Housewives of Atlanta" stars NeNe Leakes and Kim Zolciak Biermann.

It's also diversifying with scripted shows. Its second one, "Odd Mom Out," will debut this summer. It has renewed its first, "Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce."

"There is a perception with some advertisers that there's just a higher level of quality if you are doing scripted. It's changing, but that's still there," Ms. Berwick said.

Since replacing the Style Network, Esquire has yet to secure a true breakthrough franchise. But it is scoring points for reaching an elusive young male audience.

Mr. Stotsky said Esquire is taking as many programming shots as possible -- 20 so far -- to find its sweet spot. It will expand its pipeline by a quarter starting next year, he said.

One new series, "Comedians of L.A.," is part of a his-and-her duo of shows with the more-established Oxygen about comedians and their girlfriends.

"It's about how do we use the strength of the bigger networks to really launch shows and drive momentum on the smaller ones," Ms. Berwick said.

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