Harbert seeks to rebuild E!'s links to, respect in Hollywood

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Just like the celebrities it is famed for covering, E! Entertainment has had its own ups and downs. The channel took its lumps earlier in May when the Los Angeles Times broke news of an internal investigation, prompted by staff complaints about the behavior of CEO Mindy Herman, who exited soon after.

Newly installed President-CEO Ted Harbert, barely a month into his job, is already taking the first steps toward a reinvention of the Hollywood-oriented service. Out are mind-numbing-though highly amusing-series such as "Celebrities Uncensored," (heavy on Paris Hilton sightings) in favor of "more comedy, more reality, different types of shows," said Mr. Harbert.

Gone too is Joan and Melissa Rivers' caustic red carpet commentary-they were recently signed by TV Guide channel. Mr. Harbert is undaunted and is set to announce a replacement for E!'s awards coverage at any moment.

Part of Mr. Harbert's job will be reconnecting with Hollywood, said Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks SKG, where Mr. Harbert was once a producer.

"There are a lot of bridges that need to be repaired. I don't know who could do that but Ted. People trust him and he has a lot of good relationships," he said.

Mr. Harbert chafes at any description of E! as "tabloidy." "There is a big difference between being obsessed with gossip and being snarky," said Mr. Harbert. What I don't want to do is have the Hollywood community think we're here to make them look stupid."

Discussing series such as "Celebrities Uncensored," Mr. Harbert said: "People watch those shows, but there is a growth ceiling. I am not a fan of making an entire TV [series] about stars coming out of bars." New shows such as "Dr. 90210," about plastic surgery, can deliver good stories week in and week out, he claims.

A big part of Mr. Harbert's job will be moving the ratings dial. According to Nielsen Media Research figures for the past four years, E!'s prime-time U.S. household rating has remained constant at 0.3 with U.S. household share constant at 1.

"What we have is good," said Mr. Harbert, "but it's not enough."

As far as ratings predictions go, Mr. Harbert said he's doesn't expect much to change in 2004, but he expects to see some signature hits by 2005.

rich past

Mr. Harbert's appointment at E! was no doubt met with a collective sigh of relief in Hollywood, given his extensive contacts around the industry. He joined from 20th Century Fox where he was a producer. He was also president of NBC Studios-where he oversaw development for shows such as "Crossing Jordan," "Ed" and "Will & Grace"-as well as president and chairman of entertainment at Walt Disney Co.'s ABC.

"Ted knows television as well as anyone. He is passionate about programming and we think he is just the person to bring E! to the next level," Comcast Chief Operating Officer Steve Burke said. Comcast is a 51% owner of the channel, with Disney owning the balance.

Mr. Harbert isn't just looking at the channel programming however. He has an eye on the promo reel, as well.

"Marketing is one of my favorite areas. There are ratings points in marketing," he said.

While neither Mr. Harbert nor Exec VP-Ad Sales and Distribution Dave Cassaro are ready to divulge any upfront advertising pacts, Mr. Harbert said meeting the media agencies is a huge priority. He's scheduled to visit agencies on the East Coast in the coming weeks.

"I look forward to getting to New York to see what makes sense," he said. E! Entertainment, which skews female and targets 18-49 year-olds, gained rate rises of around 7%, with volume up 25% year-on-year, according to executives close to the channel.

"Ted is the consummate TV professional," said Mr. Cassaro, "he's a very proficient manager and leader. That will reflect in new and different ideas. ... Advertisers will be more enthused about [using] us and getting value."


Name: Ted Harbert

Age: 49

Now: President-CEO E! Entertainment

Who: Reached the peak of network heights after rising to chairman of ABC Entertainment. Also worked as a producer at 20th Century Fox and ran NBC Studios.

Challenge: To repair shattered relationships in Hollywood and to squeeze some growth out of E!s flat household ratings.

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