NEW YORK — After a nine-year reign as president and CEO of E! Entertainment Television, Lee Masters has abruptly decided to resign and take the $20 million payment due at the end of his five-year contract.
Masters, who, sources said, was trying to negotiate a larger role at E! parent Comcast Corp., decided not to renew his contract because he wanted to find a job that was “creatively and intellectually challenging,” he said.
Masters added that he is in very serious negotiations for his next gig and that, if the deal comes through, it will be announced in the next week.
Masters declined to indicate with whom he is negotiating. He confirmed he has had conversations with DreamWorks, but that he decided not to go with that job.
Brian Roberts, president of Comcast, the controlling shareholder of E!, said he wanted to re-sign Masters, and that his resignation would be a loss to the cable programmer.
Roberts praised Masters’ performance as chief executive of E! and the forthcoming Style! channel and said the company would continue in the strategic direction established by Masters.
“E! is poised to become a watershed franchise and grow to the next level,” said Roberts. “We’re on the cusp of being one of the truly first-tier cable services. The team that Lee assembled are the people that will lead us to financial success.”
Roberts added that if E! increased its ratings from a 0.3 to a 0.5, the service would triple its profits.
An executive close to E! said Masters’ contract called for a roughly $20 million payout when it expired after year five, which happens at the end of 1998. Masters declined to comment on the figure.
“My mom always told me it was inappropriate to talk about how much money you make,” said Masters.
“He was a little bored and ready to do something else,” said the executive close to E! “His next job, he’ll get an equity stake and end up with $100 million.”
Masters joined E! shortly before its launch in June of 1990 and led the service’s growth to 52 million subscribers. The spinoff Style! service is about to launch, and the company has been aggressive in creating Web sites and expanding to international territories. E! distributes its programming to more than 120 countries.
“I’m proud of the team that I’ve built here and that there’s been very little turnover in my nine years here,” said Masters. “It (E!) was a joke in the industry when I joined, and now it’s worth $1 billion.
“It’s very comfortable here, but I don’t think I was being challenged anymore,” added Masters.
Masters will stay with E! through the end of the year. Roberts said he’s just begun the search for Masters’ replacement, with an announcement that should come before Masters formally exits.
(Cynthia Littleton and Jenny Hontz contributed to this story.)