Disney to brand E! with pure showbiz

With the Walt Disney Co. making official Tuesday its $320 million partnership with Comcast Corp. to purchase Time Warner’s 58% stake in E! Entertainment Television, E! prexy and CEO Lee Masters was moved to call and offer his views from the deck of a ship cruising the Caribbean.

“I’m excited about it,” Masters said during the $4-per-minute interview via ship-to-shore phone.

“Of course there will be changes. Whenever you have a deal of this magnitude, there are always changes. But we will be working with great programming minds in (Disney/ABC Cable president) Geraldine Laybourne, (ABC prez) Bob Iger, (C3 prexy) Bob Crestani and (C3 chairman and CEO) Rich Frank.”

Frank, who as the head of Comcast’s C3 programming arm will be put in charge of E! programming decisions (with Comcast owning a 70% network stake), confirmed Tuesday that while E! had carved out “a very unique niche” in the TV marketplace, it had left open plenty of room to expand further into entertainment news.

“To me, E! should be to entertainment what ESPN is to sports or MTV to music,” Frank said.

“In the world of cable, people have so many different choices. So you have to make it easy for them to find your channel and identify it. They need to know what to expect when they turn you on.”

Both Frank and Disney chairman Michael Eisner are said to be less than enamored of some of the recent E! pro-gramming moves, including picking up offnet reruns of “Melrose Place” and the talkshow spoof “Night Stand With Dick Dietrick” as well as a threadbare package of B-movies. The channel also continues to run infomercials during the wee hours.

Frank didn’t deny his lack of enthusiasm for the “Melrose Places” at E!.

“We can go in a number of different directions,” Frank said. “What we’ll have to do is decide what we want to do and then execute it well. The one thing that will be easier for them now is they won’t have five bosses to report to.”

Frank added that, on the up side, E! has done a number of shows that have “jumped out and become very recogniz-able. They have gotten their name out there in a very positive fashion.”

He also had praise for the network’s present management team headed by Masters, whom Frank called “quite fine. I think they have all done a trying job under some trying circumstances.”

Masters said he isn’t worried about C3 coming in and doing a radical overhaul on the E! programming lineup.

“There are certainly strong arguments to be made for making E! totally entertainment-based,” Masters said.

“Frankly, when you spend the kind of money they have for an asset like this that’s been built up over a lot of years, you are certainly entitled to do with it what you want. But I have to believe it will all make our company get better. We can get taken to the next level and grow bigger and better than we currently are.”

For his part, Masters said his plan is to “stick around for a while” and has heard nothing to make him concerned about his future.

“My biggest fear,” Masters admitted, “is that the battery on this phone is about to run out.”

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