E! Hits Upfront With Rebranding

Now under NBCU's Bonnie Hammer, net adds series to solidify its pop culture pedigree

How excited is E!? It’s so amped, it’s actually merging with the exclamation mark.

The cable network is set to unveil a full-blown rebrand today (April 30) at its first New York upfront party, where it’s celebrating a new-ish identity as a part of Bonnie Hammer’s NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment group by unveiling an upgraded brand identity and several new series.

First and foremost, there’s the Nigel Lythgoe-produced Opening Act, a sort of anti-competition series in which Lythgoe (of American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance fame) and his network of recording industry pals seek out promising amateur performers on the Web and surprise them with a chance to open for names like Nicki Minaj (and some even bigger acts are rumored). “[In other competition shows] the nerves are usually on the performers,” said E! president Suzanne Kolb. “Now the nerves are all on us because we’re hoping these people are really good. We’re hoping it’ll be closer to reality.”

There are other high-profile names on the slate, too. Married to Jonas follows Jonas brother Kevin and his new wife Dani as the pair deals with celeb/Muggle intermarriage. And there’s Love You, Mean It With Whitney Cummings, a show that adds the omnipresent Cummings to E!’s lineup of comedians—her 2 Broke Girls on CBS was picked up for a second season in March.

Despite a preponderance of celebrity-centric content, though (the Kardashians are still going strong on the network), Kolb said firmly that E! is “not a lifestyle network,” at least not in the same way that term is defined at the other half of the NBCU cable group, Entertainment & Digital Networks (E&D). The two divisions are totally separate, and while E&D’s Style and Bravo may have similar investments, E!’s new branding declares it a “pop culture” network, with a heavier emphasis on current trends.

“Oftentimes when you say ‘lifestyle’ it can feel synonymous with ‘female,’ and we really do target and reach men and women,” Kolb said. Statistics are less emphatic—E!’s Nielsen stats were about 74 percent female in Q1 (and Kolb said there probably won’t be many male-only series on E!)—but the network wants to position shows across the gender gap.

It’s a good time for a rebrand for the network, which saw some slowdown in Q1 of 2012. (E! still ranks 19 and 17 in 18-34-year-old viewers in prime time and total day, respectively.)

With distribution reaching nearly 100 million households, raised awareness from a new marketing push could bring some ratings gains. The goal, clearly, is to bring E! into line with some of Hammer’s other properties, namely USA and Syfy—which recently had an unusually successful rebrand under Hammer and network president Dave Howe.

An analysis from SNL Kagan shows affiliate fees and advertising revenue continuing upward­. E! pulled in an estimated $215 million in ad revenue last year, up from the $202 million in 2010. Kagan predicts this year’s numbers will end up around $236 million, with affiliate fees rising to around 23 cents per subscriber.

There’s also something at E! that none of those internal peers can boast: a newsroom. Yes, it’s largely a newsroom devoted to movie stars and pop singers, but with the network styling itself “the pop of culture,” it needs to partake in the 24-hour news cycle like any other organization trying to break stories. In some ways, Chelsea Lately star Chelsea Handler and The Soup’s Joel McHale are being positioned as the nightly news anchors of the who-broke-up-with-whom world of celebrity gossip (see also McHale miming shooting himself in the head during a segment on a particularly vapid topic).

There’s a looming question, of course: Will the shiny new facade and the new programming additions make a difference to media buyers during the upfront? “The budgets will go up if they can prove they can get new viewers,” said research head Brad Adgate of Horizon Media.

“Their audience profile is fine. Shows [like E!’s flagship franchise with the Kardashians] aren’t that expensive to produce, but sometimes it’s hard to distinguish E! from other cable networks like VH1. So if they’re trying to separate themselves from the rest of the competition, that’s probably a good thing.”

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