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Ted Harbert on Celebrity News

Ted Harbert, president/CEO of Comcast Entertainment Group, oversees cable channels E! Entertainment Television, Style Network and G4, each coming off its best ratings year ever. On the eve of flagship network E!’s biggest night—the Academy Awards show Feb. 25—Harbert talked to B&C’s Anne Becker about celebrity news, digital products and Anna Nicole Smith.

With the proliferation of celebrity news, how do you set E! apart?

Frankly, we are the only network that covers this world all the time. I’m just as surprised as anyone at the continued growth in the category and the growing public interest in the world we cover. Hard news of the day is too tough to take for most people.

No one wants to go to work tomorrow and talk about global warming and how many people were killed in Iraq—it’s just too depressing. So they end up turning to the world we cover as hard news. I’m not sure that’s great news for our society, but I do think it’s true, especially for our core younger viewers.

TMZ raised its profile this year by being first on celebrity stories. Do you feel pressure to beat it on breaking news?

Let’s be honest—those guys say things and put on things we’re not necessarily comfortable doing. But I understand how our young audience is compelled by that kind of video. At [broadband site] The Vine@E! Online, we’ve stepped up our use of that kind of footage, but we shoot it ourselves.

We are part of this community we cover. We call the stars on their foibles, but we also have a partnership with them to present our content. We do need these stars to come to Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet, so we don’t take some of the liberties others do, and I’m glad we don’t. It’s what keeps the brand polished.

The Oscars are your Super Bowl Sunday. How do you keep people from getting awards-show fatigue?

We constantly meet to try to keep the viewers interested. Awards shows on broadcast are having an OK year. Our Grammy coverage was up 86%. One good idea we have is to bring Jennifer Holliday in to sing the song from Dreamgirls that she made famous. We’ve never had a live performance.

Really, the key to our viewers is to find more and better ways to show those great-looking people in their great dresses. Also, Ryan Seacrest is proving himself to be one of the best live broadcasters in television.

What’s a realistic timeline for digital products to become bigger moneymakers?

If I had the timeline, I’d be carried around in a sedan chair by my staff. The mobile business in which we’re involved all over the world is profitable because we get paid by subscribers. iTunes is profitable.

Broadband is trickier because we’re supplying a great deal of content and doing it in a low-cost basis, but we’re being very careful not to over-commercialize the site. We understand what the effect of that would be.

How do you plan to get young males to tune into G4?

I have two jobs at G4. One is to help further evolve the mission statement so we go after a broader male audience than those just interested in gaming. Second is to get [G4 President] Neal Tiles more resources to get into more programming and do more marketing.

What will allow us to do that is the savings from our consolidation [of employees to E! headquarters] that management in Philadelphia has been outstanding in realizing. Neal Tiles needs more shows and better shows, and we’re investing a healthy seven-figure number into that.

E! saw success with The Anna Nicole Show before your time. Would you have greenlighted a show if she had pitched you?

She did, and I didn’t. I didn’t think it was appropriate for the brand.