E! ups news focus in $50 mil overhaul

E! Entertainment Television today will announce phase one of its strategy to broaden and increase its entertainment news coverage. The channel’s reported $50 million-plus overhaul begins rolling out July 1.

E! staples “The Howard Stern Show,” “Talk Soup” and “The Gossip Show” will remain on the schedule as the company expands its focus on firstrun product with a 40% increase in its annual original programming budget.

What will ultimately get deep-sixed are the off-net “Melrose Place” (which moves out of primetime beginning this fall and will disappear from E! entirely once the contract to carry it expires) as well as bargain-basement reruns “Alice” and “One Day at a Time.”

The cornerstone of the new E! — as mandated by new managing partner C3, which along with Disney acquired a controlling 68.8% stake in the entertainment channel on April 1 for $321 million — will be news. Beginning July 1, E! is doubling the length of its live “E! News Daily” newscast from 30 minutes to an hour.

A name change for the show is due this fall. And E! plans to augment its daily hour with “breaking entertainment news” throughout the day.

“What we are saying is, we want to be the channel of record for people in the entertainment business and for people who watch entertainment,” said Rich Frank, prexy and CEO of C3 and managing partner of E! “That means we have to be doing the best entertainment news possible. We don’t believe you can cover all of the bases in a half-hour each night like the other guys try to do. We think it takes an hour.”

Also on July 1, L.A.-based E! launches a second network feed, giving the West Coast a chance to see the nightly newscast at 6 p.m. rather than at 3 p.m., and “Howard Stern” at 8 p.m. instead of 11.

The network also plans to take its most successful original programming element, its series of “E! True Hollywood Story” specials that revisit celebrity tragedies and controversies of the past, and turn it into a nightly strip beginning first-quarter ’98. Also, a new daily talkshow strip is being prepped for fall, while a gameshow has been put into the plan for spring/summer ’98.

The revamp won’t come cheap, or without editorial manpower. E! president and CEO Lee Masters confirmed that the net will hire at least 100 programming staffers over the next four months as well as a dozen or so additional support personnel. And “E! News Daily” host Steve Kmetko will be getting a co-anchor.

The channel is also more than doubling its news production staff in Los Angeles as well as staffing a New York bureau. It presently employs 488 bodies network-wide.

All of the new program plans are expected to bring E!’s share of original and/or live programming to 91% this fall, rising to 95% in fall ’98. Masters said that during E!’s expanded primetime hours of 6 p.m. to midnight, the channel will be 100% original.

E! will continue to air the talkshow spoof “Night Stand With Dick Dietrick,” which it co-produces, and has yet to figure out a way to unload the wee-hours infomercial block it runs from 3 to 6 a.m. But, as Masters put it, “It’s a start.”

“We are keeping the humor and spontaneity that have been hallmarks of this network from the beginning,” Masters said. “We’re just doing away with some elements we no longer need.”

This isn’t the end of the changes, either, Frank confirmed. “The remolding of E! will happen in phases over the next 18 months,” he said. “Hopefully, you’ll see changes every three to four months, and hopefully, those changes will become indispensable.”

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