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Comcast's Shell: Mid-Level Nets To Merge

A top executive at Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, predicts that mid-level cable networks will ultimately be consolidated due to bandwidth issues, just as two mini-broadcast networks, UPN and The WB, were earlier this year.

Jeff Shell, president of programming for Comcast, appearing Thursday on an industry panel in Los Angeles, said he believes there will be consolidation among midlevel cable networks, “because I think the middle is where the problem is.”

Without highly rated marquee shows, Shell said networks like those are “are in the most trouble.”

Shell was responding to a question from outspoken television producer Gavin Polone, who was moderating a state of the industry panel for the Hollywood Radio & Television Society.

Polone drew laughs when he asked Shell if there was “really a need for WE, Oxygen, Lifetime and Logo?”

Focusing on the rapid changes facing broadcast and cable, Polone pressed Shell about whether Comcast was hurt by the NFL pulling out of a deal with it in order to put games on its own digital network.

Shell, emphasizing that 492 out of 500 NFL games would still remain on broadcast and cable networks, said the NFL is a “unique property” attracting huge ratings and that he doesn’t expect there will be a huge migration by other sports to digital anytime soon, since most of the country is not adapting to it that fast.

Other issues under discussion included heavy commercial loads. Bill Lawrence, creator/executive producer of NBC’s Scrubs, complained that he produced a couple of episodes that came in under 20 minutes in length (versus the standard 24 minutes). Polone noted that it would be tough to tell a coherent story in that amount of time.

Polone also grilled the panel on issues surrounding new digital windows, such as iPods.

Bob Broder, a partner in the Broder-Webb-Chervin-Silbermann Agency, expressed outrage that “studios are now trying to treat downloads as home video on a royalty basis” for his clients.

Turning to the developing relationship between independent producers and networks on issues related to distribution windows and iPods, Sony Pictures Television President Steve Mosko acknowledged that Sony would have to get CBS’ approval if it ever decided to put a show like King of Queens on iTunes.

But Mosko, remarking that only certain shows are suited for digital exhibition, said CBS should still have some say in the matter since it has a big stake in the show. Mosko also said he didn’t expect much resistance if such a move would benefit both CBS and Sony. 

When Polone cited a study that found a majority of 16-year-olds couldn’t identify the names of four broadcast networks because they get their programming on the Web and digital devices, John Mandel, chairman of the media buying firm MediaCOM, said, “We somehow managed to lose our mojo as an industry.”