12 to Watch: Jeff Shell

Jan 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Jeff Shell won’t talk about the thing that’s at the top of his to-do list: trying to make a deal to put the NFL on Comcast’s OLN Network.

Mr. Shell, who was named president of the Comcast Programming Group last year, has already engineered the acquisition of telecasts of National Hockey League games for OLN, which the company plans to rename and reposition later this year. But having football would push both the network and Comcast’s network group into the major leagues.

The hockey deal provides something of a model for what Mr. Shell is trying to accomplish with Comcast’s portfolio of cable network properties, which also include E!, Style, The Golf Channel, G4 and the joint venture PBS Kids Sprout.

In putting together the $135 million deal with the NHL, Comcast was able to offer high-definition broadcasts, video-on-demand, online streaming and carriage of a dedicated NHL network.

“We really took a step back and thought about it from a multiplatform angle, and as a result of that we were able to not only offer some things to the NHL they couldn’t get elsewhere, but also provide some things for us which made it a unique proposition,” Mr. Shell said.

The multiplatform approach is something Mr. Shell wants all of Comcast’s networks to look at. Take E!, for example. “They’re in the forefront of cellphone and digital technology, and if you think about E!’s programming, which is quick pop celebrity news and information, it’s perfect for that kind of platform,” he said.

Mr. Shell said his goal is to develop networks that are clearly defined, serve a specific demo and work across multiple platforms, or as Comcast calls it, 360 degrees.

“It’s important for Comcast as a cable company, but it’s more important as a content company,” he said. “I think that’s the way content is going, so it’s important to me to make sure that all of our brands have an expansive canvas to work from.”

Mr. Shell is in favor of some content from Comcast’s networks being made available online. “But I think it’s got to be done in a way that doesn’t gut what we’re selling to cable operators or satellite providers,” he said.

The key is pricing. “As long as you offer it to everybody and are fair about it, then it’s actually better for us on the content side. It gives more people access to our content in more places and times, and ultimately it’s great for the cable side of the business, because we have the most interactive and dynamic platform,” he said.

As Comcast looks to develop new programming offerings, he said, “There’s going to be another linear channel here and there, but I think we’re much more interested now in looking at ways to develop and launch things that are more cross-platform in nature.”

Comcast is developing channels as part of its partnership with Sony on the MGM movie library. Former MTV executive Diane Robina is overseeing Comcast’s relationship with Sony, but she’s also helping Mr. Shell with a variety of programming and creative ideas. “I think the plan would be to have her run additional networks we launch or businesses we launch in that area,” he said.

Other areas Comcast is looking at are in regional sports networks and expanding its local news channels.

Mr. Shell said Comcast’s existing networks face challenges, but added, “We’ve made a lot of progress” in getting them to coordinate better.

But challenges remain. At the end of the year, AZN, the former International Channel turned Asian-focused, was downsized and its general manager replaced. “We still believe in that positioning,” Mr. Shell said, insisting that Comcast had no plans to unload the networks. Some of the internal changes at AZN were because its “cost structure had gotten a little out of whack,” with three times as many employees as Sprout, a network with even more subscribers. “This was a case of right-sizing the network.”

Comcast’s biggest network, E!, which had been in a ratings slide, has started to right itself, despite the losses of Howard Stern and Joan and Melissa Rivers. E! President and CEO Ted Harbert has done “a very good job of stopping the decline. Now the challenge is going to be to build upon that,” Mr. Shell said.

At A Glance

Title: President of Comcast Programming Group

How long in current position: Since May 2005

Year of birth: 1965

Place of birth: Ann Arbor, Mich.

What to watch for: Changes in current Comcast networks and the launch of new services

Who knew? Mr. Shell attends a book club meeting every month in New York. The club hosts the author of that month’s book, and has featured Kenneth Pollack and Richard Posner, among others. He said he really doesn’t have time to read books, but that the club “forces me to. That’s the beauty of it.”