Comcast in Talks To Buy E!

Cable giant Comcast Corp. is in talks to buy the remaining stake it doesn’t own in E! Entertainment Television from partner Walt Disney Corp., according to people familiar with the deal.

The purchase would bolster Comcast’s growing position in cable programming, which is composed primarily of smaller networks outside of Nielsen’s top 30 channels. With 80 million subscribers, E! is the biggest of Comcast’s holdings, programmed with a fluffy mix of entertainment news, celebrity reality shows and clip shows (101 Incredible Celebrity Slimdowns!). The network is probably best-known for its red-carpet coverage of TV- and movie-awards shows, such as the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes.

Ratings have been mixed lately, but E! President Ted Harbert has pushed them into an upswing in recent weeks, with the average prime time audience up 11% in February. One big driver is the recent acquisition of reruns of Fox reality show The Simple Life, featuring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.

A sale probably wouldn’t trigger dramatic changes at E! or sibling channel Style Network, because Comcast already manages the operation. Since 1997, Comcast and Disney have been in a partnership in which Disney initially put up all the cash but still gave the cable operator authority over day-to-day operations.

The partnership—Comcast Entertainment Holdings—owns 79.2% of E! and Style. Comcast owns an additional 20.8% outside of the partnership. The relationship got rocky when Comcast launched an attack to take over Disney, but industry executives say there have been no particular problems between the partners in recent months.

The deal that formed the E! partnership valued the network at $548 million. Merrill Lynch media analyst Jessica Reif Cohen estimates that, today, E! is worth around $2.5 billion. So buying out Disney would cost Comcast around $1 billion.

The E! sale is part of long-running negotiations to settle a number of programming issues between Comcast and Disney. Those include Comcast’s carriage of Disney’s cable networks (ESPN, The Disney Channel and ABC Family); retransmission consent for ABC owned-and-operated broadcast stations; and access to Disney shows and movies on Comcast’s video-on-demand systems.

Spokesmen for Comcast, Disney and E! would not comment on the discussions. However, Disney Senior Executive VP and CFO Tom Staggs told an investor conference that the company is open to restructuring ownership of some of its cable-network partnerships (which also include ESPN, Lifetime and A&E).

Says Staggs, "The strategic direction for us would be toward rationalization of that ownership so we can leverage those properties better, but I can’t tell you that’s going to happen anytime soon."