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Esquire to Take Over Style Network as Bonnie Hammer Revamps NBCU Cable Nets

A top NBCU programmer makes her first big move since gaining oversight of the company's cable portfolio

NBCUniversal, in a tacit acknowledgement the portfolio of cable networks it has amassed since the company was taken over by Comcast in 2011 had grown unwieldy, moved unexpectedly Monday to realign the TV outlets and the executives who run them.

The boldest move turned out to be scrapping plans to rebrand G4 as the Esquire Network, instead selecting Style Network as the NBCU cabler that will receive the Esquire treatment.

In an internal memo addressed to staff, Bonnie Hammer, the head of NBCU’s cable-programming operations, said the company would eliminate its female-skewing Style network, and gave broader responsibilities to Jeff Wachtel, currently co-chief of USA Network; Frances Berwick, currently head of Bravo; and Chris McCumber, who will going forward have sole oversight over USA.

The move could result in some staff reductions among personnel at Style, though NBCU is expected to try and help employees find other positions within the company.

“Just because something is working today doesn’t mean it will work forever,” Hammer said in the memo. “The biggest challenge to thriving in the marketplace is identifying the strategic moves that will keep us ahead of the competition.”

As part of the Comcast deal, NBCU gained networks like E!, Style and G4. But the company already had female-skewing Oxygen and Bravo, not to mention a passel of developing outlets like Chiller and Cloo that are not in the top-tier of networks sought out by advertisers and subscribers. This past spring, total-viewership ratings at USA and E! experienced some decline. With all of that in the background, it’s clear Hammer could not let things continue without tweaking.

NBCU had initially selected G4 as the net to be transformed into Esquire Network, an upscale cable offering for younger male demos. G4 struggled with ratings and a consistent brand identity, and faced potential network overhauls in the past, with the WWE even eying the channel as a potential network.

Style Network, also ranking at the lower end of NBCU’s cable ratings spectrum, faced a different challenge than G4: its tone, programming, and even celeb faces virtually mirror content seen on its sister nets, but with lower viewership. “Giuliana and Bill,” for example, is one of Style’s most-watched programs, though the telecasts draw less than 700,000 viewers, and the stars of the show established themselves on NBCU cabler E!

The maneuvers — both to reorient the Esquire launch, and to reorganize the NBCU exec ranks — represent Hammer’s first large-scale reorganization of the company’s cable assets since gaining sole oversight of the properties in February. Previously, Hammer ran USA, SyFy and the company’s other general-entertainment outlets, while Lauren Zalaznick supervised Bravo, Oxygen and the networks skewing more toward female consumers. Zalaznick has since moved into a different role overseeing emerging technology and monetizing digital assets.

Overall, the victim of Hammer’s reorganization plans is Style, a female-skewing outlet that now appears redundant given the traction Bravo, E! and, to a lesser extent, Oxygen have with consumers.

“With Bravo, E! and Oxygen, we offer unique takes on popular culture for an ever-broadening audience, including the all-important female demo,” Hammer said. “In pursuit of that same demo, Style presents brand overlap within our portfolio.”

With that in mind, Hammer is reversing some longstanding plans. Esquire was set to debut September 23, in the process replacing G4. Now, G4 will stay, while Esquire replaces Style.

The move indicates NBCU needs more networks aimed more fully at a male audience, though as recently as June, NBCU executives indicated the audience for G4 – interested in gaming, technology and other such stuff – had a short attention span that would not be found in the slightly older, wealthier target for Esquire.

Now NBCU may have to alter its G4 strategy for the network that has already canceled one of its flagship series, “Attack of the Show” and depends heavily on reruns of skeins like “Cops” and “Cheaters.” Immediate programming changes are not likely.

Wachtel has been elevated to the newly created position of President and Chief Content Officer, NBCU Cable Entertainment, and will begin to develop original programming across the company’s cable-network holdings. Berwick will gain responsibility for Oxygen, prompting the departure of president Jason Klarman. McCumber, who has worked in tandem with Wachtel for years in building USA series like “Psych,” “Burn Notice” and “Royal Pains,” will now oversee what is arguably the company’s flagship network – despite the broader recognition of the NBC broadcast outlet – on his own.

Hammer said Salaam Coleman-Smith, president of Style Media, would remain with NBCU. Adam Stotsky, general manager of Esquire, and currently supervisor of G4, will retain oversight of both networks.

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