Ted Harbert, president and CEO of E! Networks, was today named president and CEO of Comcast Entertainment Group. The new division encompasses the cable operator’s West Coast-based entertainment properties (currently comprised of E!, Style Network and G4).

G4 president Neal Tiles now reports to Harbert—a veteran television executive who worked with Comcast Cable president Steve Burke at ABC—while Salaam Coleman Smith continues to report to Harbert as president of Style. Harbert, meanwhile, continues to report to Jeff Shell, president of Comcast’s Programming Group.

Harbert and Shell spoke today with Shirley Brady about the reorganization of Comcast’s entertainment properties and what the impact will be into next year, when the consolidation and related job cuts will be finalized. Ted Harbert, president and CEO, Comcast Entertainment Group: Ted, what does your new role entail?

Harbert: As I said in the press release and I meant what I said, I’m just so thrilled because this all fits together so perfectly: to have the broad appeal of E! network going after all adults 18-49 and then a male appealing network [in G4] and a female-appealing network [in Style], it all just fits perfectly and rounds out what I do.

My main job, starting today, is to figure out how to make this consolidation work. That more than anything involves the physical move of executives from the current G4 headquarters [on West Olympic Blvd. in Los Angeles] to here on Wilshire Blvd. When you get into a physical move, that’s a very complex analysis.

We also have to figure out where best to do all the production for all three networks. There’s a lot of production that’s done here in this building at E! and there’s a lot of production done at G4 [at its studios in Santa Monica]. We have to figure out if the shows they have at G4 should stay there, or should they move, or should some of the E! or Style shows move out of this building. That’s a very separate analysis from the executive consolidation. Talk about that executive consolidation: How many positions will be eliminated and in which departments?

Harbert: That’s what we have to go look at; we simply haven’t done that work. Could there be overlap in similar administrative functions? Yes. And then we’ll have those tough calls to make. But we just haven’t done any of the work so that analysis starts today and we’ll see where it takes us. Why is this restructuring happening now?

Harbert: You’d have to ask Jeff Shell the answer to that. I think what they did is study how well E! and Style have worked, being under the same umbrella, and how much it really helped Style because it’s financially successful because we share operations, we share administrative functions. So frankly we can divert more resources onto the screen and into marketing, which is the key to growing the audience [for G4].

G4 has had the burden of being a standalone operation, and so if we can find some efficiencies here the goal is to put more money into programming and marketing, which should expand their audience. Any other reasons for this move?

Harbert: There is something to the geographical location with all three of these networks being in Los Angeles, so there are some efficiencies there. I also assume you’re re-upped your contract with this new role?

Harbert: Yes I did have time left on my contract but [Comcast in] Philadelphia has graciously extended it. And so I’m going to be here for quite a while. It was reported earlier this year that Comcast was looking at buying out Disney’s stake in E! Networks and assuming full ownership. What’s the status?

Harbert: It has not happened yet, but you’ll have to ask Jeff about that. I don’t know the timetable and that’s what they do there [at Comcast HQ in Philadelphia]. What are your goals for G4 as you look at stepping up its programming and marketing? They’ve already been through a major rebranding [from TechTV] and overhauled their programming lineup.

Harbert: They rebranded properly and smartly, so I think that just as there’s a great audience for Style and the women who watch Style have a lot of passion for it so if you’re smart and do your job right, you can grow that audience, it’s the same thing for G4. The people who watch it really love it. Sure it’s a challenge to go after any targeted audience, but that’s the good news. They’ve got a brand that they know they want to go after.

In television we’re seeing more and more, especially with young viewers, they’re attracted to brands that announce loud and clear what they’re trying to accomplish. It’s frankly much tougher for general entertainment networks, whether broadcast or cable, because they’re as good as their last hit.

What I’ve found with E! and Style is that they’re brands, and that we get people to watch because they not only like the programs we put on, but because they like the brands. And G4 is, and can be more of, that same thing, where young men will go to G4 because they’re going to see something on there that’s targeted to them that they like. You’ve got a couple of teenagers at home. Have they given you any insights into the G4 viewers’ mindset?

Harbert: Yes. I’ve got a 17 year-old daughter and a 13 year-old son, and he is the perfect G4 viewer. I want G4 to go after that 18-34 year-old audience because that’s what we sell to advertisers, but my son’s the perfect G4 viewer: he loves gaming, he loves gadgets, he loves gear, he’s just starting to like girls. So I learn a lot from him in terms of what young men are looking at. That demographic is in the sweet spot for multiplatform and digital, which you’ve been exploring with your E! Everywhere initiative and G4 has been doing too…

Harbert: All I want to do frankly is help them get more and more resources for that, because they really know what they’re doing there and they’ve done a fantastic job in multiplatform. G4 is already the #1 podcasted network. Digital is already a huge part of their business, so they don’t need my help there. We’ve also had a lot of success at E! in the new digital businesses and we’re starting to do the same thing with Style. We’ve allocated a lot of resources in our ’07 budget towards multiplatform for the Style network. What they do at G4 is just outstanding and it’s not a network that’s broken. I just want to help them do more. Are you looking for someone to take over your role running E! so you can focus on the three networks?

Harbert: Not today but maybe tomorrow, meaning next year perhaps. I’ve got such a strong team of people who really do run E!, between Lisa Berger [SVP of programming] and Suzanne Kolb [EVP of marketing and communications], I’ve really got such a great team here. I really consider them the ones who run E! Because E! is the mothership of the company, Jeff and I have decided that I should keep my hands on it for the foreseeable future. Comcast’s first hybrid network is about to launch with the VOD/Web/mobile debut of FEARnet on Oct. 31. Will you be helping Jeff and Diane [Robina, president of Comcast emerging networks] launch entertainment- based hybrid channels?

Harbert: Yes, and we have several ideas here for broadband channels. In fact, next month I’ll be sitting down in Philadelphia and talking to Jeff about them. Diane is doing a great job with FEARnet and some of the channels that would be emanating out of this Comcast Entertainment Group we’ll be involved in. But that really is next year’s business. We’ve got a lot of plans. What’s your biggest challenge in this new position?

Harbert: This is a really well-rounded challenge. It allows me to use all of the programming and marketing and operational skills that I’ve picked up over the last 30 years, I’m now eight months shy of 30 years in television and doing this. I love a challenge, and what I love about this new job most is it’s a learning opportunity. Comcast has given me the opportunity to keep my learning curve up and folding G4 under the Comcast Entertainment Group umbrella is going to be a learning curve as well. In the relatively short time you’ve been running E! Networks [since summer 2004], what are you most proud of?

Harbert: At E!, a couple of things. We’ve obviously burnished the brand and we’ve really helped solidify E! in the minds of viewers as their #1 entertainment destination. We’re far and away the #1 television brand that people use to get their information about entertainment, Hollywood and pop culture. With so much competition coming after us, I’m thrilled that we’re able to do that, and that’s because of adding Ryan Seacrest and putting on more and better shows.

The second thing at E! I’m proud of is that in losing Howard Stern, which was far and away our #1-rated show, we were worried that our ratings would go down but our ratings have gone up. There have been really strong demographic increases. The household increases have been relatively small but the demographic increases have been pretty substantial. So I’m very pleased about that.

Style has also doubled its ratings since I got here, and we’ve just got to keep that going. It’s difficult to double them again, but Salaam [Coleman Smith, EVP of Style] has done a great job of really focusing on how to grow that brand. So we’ve done some great work at E! and it’s time to concentrate on Style and now on G4, because they both have such huge potential. So I’m really excited to spend the next year, year and a half, concentrating on those networks. Jeff Shell, president of Comcast’s Programming Group: Jeff, what’s the reason for this move? And why now?

Shell: Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a bigger picture story here. Essentially we have two network groups in LA, which doesn’t make any sense and you can’t operate these networks on a standalone basis anyway. That’s not the only reason for doing it but it makes sense to put them together.

Will there also be a Comcast Sports Group, for instance, for Comcast’s sports networks [Versus, Golf Channel and Comcast SportsNet]?

Shell: On the sports side, Golf Channel’s in Orlando, Comcast SportsNet’s here in Philly and Versus is up in Connecticut so we don’t really have the same locational reason for doing that, even if we did want to strategically, which I don’t think we want to do. And we don’t have an executive like Ted Harbert on the sports side that I’d want to put everything under. So no, there are no plans to do that.

And there was never any thought of adding AZN, Comcast’s entertainment network for Asian Americans, and PBS Kids Sprout, your entertainment network for kids, under this new Comcast Entertainment Group banner?

Shell: That’s right. The location synergies aren’t there. Also, Ted will bring a unique sense to G4 as well. It’s a mainstream, young male network. The other reason to do this is we’ve had a lot of success with G4 and Ted has had a lot of success at E! and brings a lot to the table, so combining both of those [networks] will really help propel G4 even further. I’m not sure you could say the same thing for some of the other more specialized networks that we have.

Has Comcast completed its acquisition of Disney’s stake in E! Networks, as was reported back in March?

Shell: That was only a rumor that was out there. The ownership of E! today is still the same as it’s always been.

The biggest concern when people hear the word “consolidation” is job cuts. What will be the impact on the employees of these networks you’re now combining? Are layoffs looming, and if so, how extensive will they be?

Shell: That’s not the primary reason we’re doing this, but to be honest, we will be looking for operational efficiencies and ways to manage the businesses more efficiently. We do not have any specific plans now and that will be up to Ted going forward. But I think it wouldn’t be appropriate or sensible for us not to look at efficiencies. So yes, that might be part of it down the road.

Are you planning to fill E!’s president and CEO role that Ted is now vacating?

Shell: Perhaps, but at the moment and for the foreseeable future, there’s no reason to do that. I look at my boss here at Comcast, Steve Burke, who has two roles: he serves as COO of the overall company and also runs the cable group. So Ted now really has two roles: he runs this entertainment group and he also runs E!, and as the flagship brand that makes sense, so I don’t really have any plans to change that in the foreseeable future.

Will you and Diane Robina look to Ted to help develop entertainment channels that fit into the hybrid non-linear model you’re launching on Halloween with FEARnet?

Shell: Yes, there’s no question. Absolutely.

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