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Shell Move Stirs Dominoes

It will be a while until Jeff Shell joins Comcast Corp. as its programming czar, but cable-industry insiders are already making predictions about how he’ll restructure the MSO’s content portfolio once on board.

Shell, who recently resigned as CEO of Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc., publicly insists that he does not have a job yet with Comcast or anyone else. But last week, several sources said Shell has been saying — privately — that he’ll be joining Comcast in May, shortly after his contract with Gemstar would have expired.

Shell, 39, has good reasons to keep mum about his plans. According to a Gemstar securities filing from last week, Shell signed papers on Dec. 9 agreeing not to “sign an employment agreement with another entity, or make an announcement of any intentions to do so, until after Jan. 8.” He also agreed to render exclusive and full-time services to interactive programming guide vendor Gemstar until Jan. 8, and to be available to consult for the company from that date until April 29.

Gemstar is also losing a second executive in as many weeks. Top affiliate-sales and marketing executive Ray Hopkins is leaving to take the chief operating officer spot at Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network. Hopkins, like Shell, is a former top Fox Cable Networks Group executive, and YES is now run by Tracy Dolgin, the former Fox Sports Net chief.

Shell is well-respected in the cable industry, considered a whip-smart up-and-comer. As Comcast’s programming czar, he will reportedly take oversight and actually be in charge of operating some of the networks that currently report to Amy Banse, executive vice president of Comcast’s programming investments division.

The industry buzz, in part, has been about the internal politics of Shell coming to Comcast — and whose feathers might be ruffled at either the corporate level or at the MSO’s networks.

Cable programming executives expect Shell to hop to the task of consolidating functions like affiliate sales and marketing for Comcast’s varied cable networks, and to create an overall infrastructure to service them all.

“You need some cohesive strategy,” one network official said. “They [Comcast] never used their resources together as a collective asset.”

Comcast’s grab bag of content is growing. The MSO owns or has stakes in E! Entertainment Television, Style, Outdoor Life Network, Golf Channel, G4TechTV, Comcast SportsNet and TV One.

Comcast is also launching a preschool network next year, and plans to roll out additional networks, possibly a classic movie channel, when the Sony Corp.-led investment group in which it has taken part acquires Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.

Comcast’s networks have long operated as separate fiefdoms, with individual ad sales and affiliate sales units.

Most programmers with multiple networks — like Viacom Inc. and Discovery Communications Inc. — consolidate functions like affiliate sales and ad sales for efficiency and to create leverage for their channels with distributors and advertisers.

Comcast has already moved to centralize ad sales by appointing E! veteran Dave Cassaro as president of the new Comcast Network Advertising Sales. Industry insiders expect Shell to name a counterpart to Cassaro on the affiliate-sales side — a distribution chief.

Some are already predicting that Allan Singer, a senior vice president in Banse’s unit, will get that post.

Another source said Golf Channel is likely to retain its own affiliate-sales force to concentrate on its continuing evolution to a basic service from a premium one.

Much of the speculation about Shell’s joining Comcast has been about its implications for Banse and its effect on her. She currently reports to Comcast president and chief operating officer Steve Burke.

“That’s the wild card here,” one affiliate-sales official said.

As head of Comcast’s programming-investments division Banse, a veteran Comcast lawyer and dealmaker, has decided which networks the MSO should bankroll or develop. Banse is expected to continue with those duties.

“She wields a lot of power there,” one industry veteran said. “But they need to bring in an operating person, because she’s a business-development person. She’s never operated a network before.”

Banse has overseen Comcast’s interests in the national networks. But she doesn’t have a hands-on role in operating any of them. Shell will.

One source claimed Banse’s tenure has been marred by the embarrassing situation that developed on her watch with Mindy Herman at E!. Herman left as E! president in May when allegations arose that she had abused her power, charges she denied.

Roughly a month later, in July, Comcast shifted responsibility for E! and Style to Burke, with those channels reporting to him. Golf Channel, Outdoor Life, G4TechTV and new-content development continued to report to Banse.

Despite that change, some sources dismissed the idea that Comcast held Banse in any way responsible for the sticky Herman situation, which included allegations that Herman had gotten into an altercation with an E! employee outside of a club.

Creating a reporting structure once Shell comes on board at Comcast could be tricky, some sources predicted. Some believe Shell wouldn’t take the Comcast job unless Banse reports to him.

Others expect Banse to continue to report to Burke or Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, and Shell to report to Burke.

Shell’s replacement at Gemstar, former Fox Entertainment Group executive Rich Battista, will get an annual base salary of $850,000, according to the company’s securities filing. With Hopkins leaving, Tonia O’Connor was promoted to executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing.

Hopkins was formerly senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for Fox Cable, which operates more than 20 regional and national networks.

“With Jeff’s departure, I figured this was a natural break and a great opportunity that I would be foolish to pass on,” Hopkins said. “It gives me a chance to work with Tracy, and regional sports networks is in my DNA.”

A 10-year veteran of the company, O’Connor, who reported to Hopkins, was most recently Gemstar’s senior vice president of national accounts, affiliate sales and marketing.

Mike Farrell and R. Thomas Umstead contributed to this story.