Veteran network warrior Ted Harbert is switching gears to take on the cable universe.
The former NBC Studios/ABC Entertainment topper is in line to take over the No. 1 spot at E! Networks following the recent resignation of chief exec Mindy Herman, according to multiple industry insiders.
Harbert, 49, served as chairman of ABC Entertainment for four years, launching such skeins as “NYPD Blue” and “My-So Called Life.” He spent his first 20 years at the network, having begun his career with the company right out of college in 1977.
Vet programmer and producer recently spent four years at the helm of NBC Studios, where he helped develop shows including “Ed,” “Boomtown” and “Crossing Jordan” while overseeing projects such as hit laffer “Will & Grace.”
Hiring a seasoned network veteran Harbert would instantly give E! a much-needed dose of credibility following Herman’s alleged improprieties while managing the channels. Harbert is no revolutionary, but he knows the town inside and out and would instantly provide E! access to top agents and producers who might otherwise have turned up their nose at doing business with the cabler, which under Herman’s watch was criticized for its move toward tabloidism.
Comcast, which holds the majority stake in E! Networks, has been shopping for a new head since rumors of Herman’s financial misdeeds and bad conduct forced the prexy-CEO to announce an early exit (Daily Variety, May 28).
Until Wednesday, Harbert’s name was not on the shortlist of potential replacements for Herman circulating around town. But in retrospect, Harbert’s hiring makes perfect sense: Move would reunite Harbert and Comcast president Steve Burke under the same roof. Burke headed up ABC Broadcasting when Harbert was in charge of the net’s entertainment division in the mid-’90s.
An E! spokeswoman declined comment and referred calls to Comcast. In turn, a Comcast rep said a spokesman for the company was otherwise engaged and would not be able to return calls Wednesday. Harbert could not be reached for comment.
Insiders say Harbert has approached execs at 20th Century Fox Television, where his Ted Harbert TV shingle is under a two-year contract, about being let out of his deal.
Studio execs are said to be willing to scrap the pact, noting that Harbert is not moving to a competing venture.
If tapped president-CEO of E! Networks, Harbert would likely preside over both E! Entertainment TV and sister cabler Style network.
Over at E!, Harbert will have to figure out how the entertainment channel fits into the larger cable landscape. E!’s ratings were flat last year, and the network faces ever-increasing competition from channels like VH1 and Bravo, both of which have moved into E!’s pop culture/celebrity territory.
E!’s recent attempt at a signature hour post-“The Anna Nicole Show,” the reality showbiz stunt show “Scream Play,” has failed to attract an audience. In addition, cabler just lost red-carpet queens Joan and Melissa Rivers (Daily Variety, June 22), who vacated the network for a $8 million, three-year deal at TV Guide Channel.
On the flip side, E! flagship “True Hollywood Story” remains strong, and five-hour stunts “101 Most Starlicious Makeovers” and “101 Best Kept Hollywood Secrets” lifted the channel to its most-watched second quarter ever in total viewers and the key adults 18-34 and 18-49 demos.
Style, meanwhile, just snapped up the rights to the “Martha Stewart Living” series, which the net will begin stripping this month. Execs are also firming up a slate of shows that complete the channel’s transition from runway to lifestyle programming.
During his 20-year tenure at ABC, Harbert also launched “thirtysomething,” “Home Improvement,” “Roseanne,” “The Wonder Years” and “The Practice.”
Harbert most recently exec produced the Jessica Simpson pilot for ABC. He also worked on series projects “It’s like, you know…” and “Arsenio” for DreamWorks Television.
(Josef Adalian and Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)