Sex, Fame Still Working for E!

May 16, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Seeking to boost its stagnant ratings, E! is launching a summer slate of reality fare spotlighting the ever-reliable combination of sex, struggle and celebrities.

Five new series and more than a half-dozen specials will make their debut on the entertainment channel, whose audience has eroded in recent years in the face of competing celebrity-centered programming on VH1, Bravo, A&E and the fledgling TV Guide Channel.

The new series include a behind-the-scenes look at women who live in the Playboy Mansion, a reality competition among struggling actors and a docu-soap following pampered celebrity offspring working a cattle drive.

“I’m all about the struggle. I love shows where people are struggling,” said Ted Harbert, E! Networks president and CEO. “I want a big infusion of new programming, a combination of new series along with the type of specials people love and expect out of E!”

E! is firmly in need of a breakout series. Though plastic surgery reality show “Dr. 90210” and the socialite docu-soap “Gastineau Girls” produce solid returns (Mr. Harbert said “90210” will likely return for a third season, “Gastineau” for a second), neither has become appointment viewing. Both hover around 500,000 viewers, about 100,000 more than the network’s prime-time average.

This spring’s tentpole effort, the reality series “The Entertainer,” hosted by Wayne Newton, was a particular disappointment, averaging about 212,000 viewers per episode. Mr. Harbert confirmed the series would not return.

“I don’t look at it as a big success, but it certainly brought a lot of attention and noise to the network,” he said.

The new E! shows are:

“The Girls Next Door” (Aug. 7): Behind the scenes at the Playboy Mansion. Mr. Harbert said the producers (one of which, Alta Loma Entertainment, is a subsidiary of Playboy Enterprises), have received unprecedented access to the famed mansion.

“A lot of people have shown downstairs at the parties but not upstairs in the bedrooms-though we won’t be showing sex,” he said. “It’s all about these women who live there, most of which are not in the magazine anymore.”

The series is produced by Fox Television Studios, Prometheus Entertainment, Alta Loma Entertainment and executive produced by Kevin Burns.

“Fight for Fame” (June 5): Five aspiring actors compete for representation by a Hollywood talent agency. Produced by E! Studios. “The concept isn’t groundbreaking, but I think you’ll be taken by their struggle,” Mr. Harbert said. “The stakes are so high for them.”

“Kill Reality” (July): A group of notorious reality show cast members from various prime-time reality series have to work and live together as they act in an upcoming New Line horror movie; produced by The Fishbowl.

“Party @ The Palms” (June 15): Loosely described as “Wild On at the Palms Casino Hotel,” the Las Vegas-based series will capture “the sexually charged atmosphere of the party that never ends”; produced by E! Studios in association with Alta Loma Entertainment. “We’re trying to do a lot of fun partying but fall short of pixilation,” Mr. Harbert said.

“Cattle Drive” (working title; Aug. 7): Haley Benatar-Giraldo (daughter of musician Pat Benatar), and Courtenay Semel (daughter of Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel) work on the open range. “This will be quite a bit more real than [`The Simple Life’],” Mr. Harbert said. “Cattle Drive” is produced by “Newlyweds” executive producer Joe Simpson and J2TV, a newly formed production company by “Malcolm in the Middle” actor Justin Berfield and Jason Felts.

The new E! specials include “What Hollywood Taught Us About Sex” (a clip show hosted by Jenny McCarthy), “101 Even Bigger Celebrity Oops” (sequel to the popular countdown special), “I Was a Network TV Star” (reuniting cast members from yesteryear series), “Jennifer Aniston: On Her Own Terms” (the post-“Friends” life of the actress) and “THS Investigates: Serial Killers” (a “True Hollywood Story” spinoff).

Still unclear is whether E! will renew its contract with Howard Stern, whose nightly talk show remains the channel’s biggest draw. Mr. Stern’s contract expires in the next few months. In January the radio host is moving his show off commercial radio to the Sirius satellite radio network to escape Federal Communications Commission profanity restrictions.

Though E!’s conservative parent company Comcast has expressed misgivings over keeping Mr. Stern on the channel, the loss of Mr. Stern could be a serious ratings blow. Last year E! lost red carpet queens Joan and Melissa Rivers to competitor TV Guide Channel.

Among prime-time total viewers, E! was down an average of 13 percent in the first quarter, 15 percent in fourth quarter 2004 and 19 percent in third quarter compared with the same periods last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Mr. Harbert said he doesn’t expect a turnaround until later this year.

“Truthfully, I’m not expecting much more from the second quarter,” Mr. Harbert said. “I do expect to see some uptick in the summer with the majority of this programming heading there. It’s now something very different for E! It’s now a day-in/day-out war now that there’s real competition from well-funded, smart, aggressive programmers. We can’t take for granted that we’re E! so entertainment fans will come to E!”