Q&A With Jeff Shell: Style Catches a Rising Czar
By John P. Ourand
Comcast’s networks are pieces of the 800-lb gorilla that are often overlooked. Programming czar Jeff Shell’s arrival in May ought to change that. In his brief tenure OLN picked up rights to pro hockey; E! is starting to move away from Howard Stern’s male demo; and G4 has a new team in place. In his most expansive comments since assuming the reins of Comcast’s programming stable, Shell gives an unvarnished view of his properties and singles out Style as the hidden gem.
CableWorld: Let’s talk about Comcast Sports Net…
Jeff Shell: Before we get to that, I want to bring up another network. The hidden gem in our portfolio is Style. The networks performing the best all around for us are Golf, Style and TV One. Style is quietly emerging as the home for young, affluent women. The programming is all right on message. The ratings have doubled in the last year. It’s beating E! some nights. It’s makeover shows. It’s fashion shows. It’s like In Style on TV. It’s a network hitting on all cylinders in distribution. It’s stuck in 40-44 million homes. We have to get it up to 60-70 million. It’s a huge potential business.
CW: I never would have expected you to say that.
Shell: It’s been one of the most pleasant surprises since I got here. The programming looks great. With little or no awareness or marketing, slowly- quarter to quarter, week to week-the ratings are up.
CW: We’ve noticed some changes at E! What else is planned?
Shell: We need to sharpen and reinvigorate the brand and return to what is the gold standard of celebrity and pop culture. One of the first things [E! boss] Ted Harbet did was reinvigorate E!’s news show. The ratings are up 40-50% on that show. Giuliana DePandi, who’s on that show, is a star in the making. We believe that is one of the cornerstones that we’re going to build our schedule around. The Red Carpet is another area where we have to reestablish our dominance. Of course, I came from [TV Guide], a place that tried to bring E! down.
CW: What else do you need to do with E!?
Shell: We need to do high-quality original programming that supports the brand. We’re committed to E! True Hollywood Story. We’ll continue to invest the same amount and premiere the same amount that we’re doing. The show that really broke out is Girls Next Door, which is about Hefner’s three girlfriends. Then there’s Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive and Taradise. We have some very male programming, which was done to try and maintain the Howard Stern audience when we lost him. You’ll probably see less of that type of programming going forward.
CW: Are you going to bring Joan and Melissa Rivers back?
Shell: I think Joan and Melissa are great. The Red Carpet needs to evolve. It can’t be about just people on the Red Carpet interviewing people and talking about their dresses. It’s got to be different, faster-paced. We’re viewing it as a pre-game show. On the Emmy telecast that we just did, you saw the first start of that where we went from four or five cameras to 19. We need to own the Red Carpet for major events. I love watching Joan and Melissa. Our show is better, and it showed up in the ratings. Our ratings were up a lot more than theirs were, and they didn’t have Joan and Melissa last year.
CW: OK, your regional sports nets. Will we see the added NHL programming on them?
Shell: We have the right twice a week to bring a national game into one of our local networks, if the network and the team consent. For example, we can schedule a double header on nights when the Washington Capitals are playing on SportsNet Mid-Atlantic. We can throw a live Kings-Avalanche game on after the Capitals game. If we throw it on the air as a hockey doubleheader, it doesn’t cost us anything. We’re just picking up the feed. It’s better to have a back-to- back doubleheader of live hockey than even a local call-in, or something like that.
CW: How’s The Golf Channel doing?
Shell: Golf is the model of the type of network that will succeed in the next generation of television. Golf is not highly rated, but serves its core audience perfectly. It has a huge satisfaction level, and we get huge amounts of advertising. It is a core, older male, and affluent channel.
It’s one of those things where if it’s not broken don’t fix it. Our distribution is solid. Our financial performance is solid. We’re happy with where that channel is right now. It maybe needs a little bit of reinvigoration as far as a little bit more investment in original programming. Big Break has been successful. Every time they put it on, it does great. We probably should be doing a little bit more of that.
CW: Is OLN trying to be another ESPN?
Shell: I find that question absurd. When TNT does Closer, do you ask if they’re competing with NBC? We’re all competing with each other for eyeballs. All we’re trying to do with OLN is take a niche product and look for things that could make it more powerful, more attractive and more viewed. Even if that market or property isn’t the broadest market, if it can be somebody’s favorite channel, whether it’s Tour de France, the NHL or bull riding, that’s intriguing. I don’t really see us competing with ESPN or anybody else.
CW: How interested are you in the NFL, NBA, baseball?
Shell: We’re interested in any property that can make us better and help monetize and increase the value of the channel.
CW: It sounds like you’ve given that answer before.
Shell: I would prefer something with a smaller audience that is the only thing on at that time. One of the beautiful things about the NFL is that it’s effectively exclusive: when you have an NFL game on, there’s no other place to get it. We’re much more interested in OLN being the only place for that fan base, even if it means a smaller audience.
CW: What are you going to do about OLN’s name?
Shell: There’s going to be a name change next summer. OLN is not going to be the long-term name.
CW: We don’t associate TV One with Comcast. How much of a hand do you have in it?
Shell: We don’t have a hand in it at all. They operate as an autonomous unit. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Alfred Liggins, who I think is one of the most impressive guys you’ll ever meet. The guy is going to be president some day. It would be nice for them to be part of the group. Based on my relationship with Johnathan Rodgers, I want to try and bring them in and have them take advantage of the things we’re doing here. It’s great to get Johnathan’s perspective on other networks we have. It’s great for the other networks to give Johnathan perspective on his. It helps them to be part of a group, in terms of economies of scale and cross communication. We treat them as one of our networks even though we don’t manage it.
CW: What are your initial impressions of Sprout?
Shell: If you look at the pre-K market, there really isn’t any 24-hour channel. If you happen to plop your son or daughter front of the TV for an hour or two in the afternoon or at 11pm when they’re teething, it’s good to have a nice, safe place. Mornings are upbeat and energetic and bright colors. Nights are much darker colors and quieter, calmer programming-more bedtime programming. In one sense, we’re getting into a competitive market as a late entrant. On the other side, we’re pioneering something that hasn’t been done.
CW: Lots of changes at G4. What’s up there?
Shell: G4 has a lot of potential. It’s in a lot of homes. It just does not do any ratings. Neal Tiles, an old friend of mine who we brought in, is a marketing/branding genius. With Dale Hopkins, it’s hard to find somebody with any more cable and operational expertise. So marrying the two of them to run the business is perfect.
CW: You’ve been on the job five months. Assess your group’s operations.
Shell: Comcast really hasn’t operated autonomously in the past. We haven’t taken advantage of the scale of buying and operating. We haven’t taken advantage of communication between different network heads. We’re just trying to start all the processes of doing some of that, whether it’s consolidation of certain functions here in Philadelphia to get cost and operating benefits, or whether it’s people communicating with each other, which hadn’t happened here.
CW: Can the communication be better?
Shell: Comcast is the largest broadband provider in the world. The online heads of the various networks, until recently, had not met each other.
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