E! to keep eye on biz

Disney, Comcast won't change net's showbiz focus

E! Entertainment Television is likely to more or less retain its current programming focus and philosophy once the Walt Disney Co.’s bid to team with Comcast Corp. in a $320 million purchase of Time Warner’s 58% majority stake in E! is signed off (Daily Variety, Jan. 27).

There has been speculation that Disney’s interest in E! is motivated in part by a desire to toss out E!’s entertainment-information format and turn it into a children’s channel in the wake of Disney/ABC Cable’s recent announcement that it will launch a Disney Channel companion network called ABZ.

But industry insiders insist that scenario wouldn’t make very good business sense, given that E! has turned a corner over the past 12 months and is finally profitable. Analysts have valued the network in the $575 million to $600 million range.

Comcast in control

Moreover, under the structure terms of the deal, Comcast and its C3 programming arm would be put in control of E!. C3 would be expected to control 51% of the 70% majority stake, with Disney holding 49%.

Disney is clearly expected to have some influence over how E! is programmed to its 42 million subscriber homes, however, and decisions over which executives stay and which leave.

Sources in the television business believe that the E! executive core will remain essentially unaffected, with prexy and CEO Lee Masters, senior VP of programming Fran Shea and senior VP of marketing Dale Hopkins expected to survive the ownership shakeup.

Where the Mouse House’s influence could reportedly be felt more concretely is in the way future programming moves are made.

Wrong direction

Both Disney chairman Michael Eisner and Rich Frank, the CEO of C3 and a onetime Disney TV prexy, are said to oppose the direction E! has gone, with regard to purchasing episodes of shows such as off-net “Melrose Place” and first runs of the syndicated “Night Stand with Dick Dietrick.”

Sources believe that longtime business friends Eisner and Frank could well commission a fine-tuning of the way E! gathers and presents entertainment news. It’s unclear how they might view such E! staples as “Howard Stern,” “Talk Soup,” “The Gossip Show” and the entertainment net’s increasing number of originally produced docu hours.

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