E! Entertainment Television will hire about 125 new employees to support a major increase in production and an intense focus on entertainment news.
The move marks the first sign that E!’s new majority owners, Comcast Corp. and Walt Disney Co., intend to invest heavily in the Los Angeles-based channel in order to boost its lagging ratings and increase the number of cable subscribers who receive it.
E!’s racy program staples, like “The Howard Stern Show” and various specials featuring models clad in lingerie and bikinis, will continue when E! rolls out its new primetime schedule starting June 30. Officials with Beverly Hills-based C3 the programming arm of Comcast, which now controls E! say that speculation about the demise of Stern and the special bikini shows was purely a media invention.
“All the writing came from reporters, not from us,” said C3 Chairman and Chief Executive Rich Frank. “We’re not a channel for children, we’re an entertainment channel. It’s fine for Sports Illustrated to do a swimsuit edition, and I’ll bet there are more children reading Sports Illustrated than watching E!”
On the cutting block at E! are low-rated reruns of such shows as “Melrose Place” and “One Day at a Time.”
Over the next two years, E! intends to boost its programming budget by 40 percent. Company officials would not reveal what this means in dollar terms, but Variety estimated the cost at over $50 million.
E! President and Chief Executive Lee Masters said the additional production money is being reinvested from the network’s cash flow, rather than representing a new investment from Comcast and Disney.
One of the first changes will be an expansion of the “E! News Daily” show hosted by Steve Kmetko, which will grow from a half-hour to an hour of entertainment news starting June 30. The change means E! will double its production staff in Los Angeles and open a satellite bureau in New York.
New series coming later this year and next year will include “Celebrity Bio,” a weekly one-hour profile of a well-known celebrity, “Mysteries and Scandals,” a half-hour weekly expose of legendary Hollywood figures, “E! Game Show,” and “Talk Show,” a daily one-hour show whose host has yet to be determined. E! also promises to produce more celebrity-oriented specials and increase its coverage of live Hollywood events.
A 59 percent stake in E! was purchased in January for $312 million by Comcast and Disney from Time Warner Inc. with Comcast owning a slight majority of the partnership. The new owners, according to Frank, hope to boost the channel from its current 45 million subscribers to over 60 million, which would match the number of subscribers accessing the nation’s biggest cable networks.
E! is believed to be a highly profitable cable network, although analysts say the secret of its success is its ability to generate viewers while spending little on programming. Its Nielsen rating averages around the 0.3 level, considered quite low for a mid-sized cable channel.
Frank said he believes the new programming will make the channel more desirable both to viewers and to cable systems looking for new channels.
“As cable systems are being rebuilt, and their channel capacity goes up, we’re hoping to be considered good enough to be worth adding,” Frank said.
The 125 new employees that E! plans to add over the next three or four months to its existing staff of 488 might be more than its current headquarters at 5670 Wilshire Boulevard can accommodate. The company has hired real estate brokerage Metrospace/CRESA to explore options.
“It’s going to be tough to accommodate the number of new people here,” Masters said. “After we absorb this group (of 125), we’ll probably want to expand again, so we’re looking seriously at other locations.”