''In the entertainment field there is nobody else who does what E! does' : Kevin MacLellana - Comcast Entertainment Group, International president

With the advent of digitisation in India, more international broadcasters are looking to launch channels in the country. A case in point is E! Networks. It runs E!, which focusses on Hollywood news, stories and features. It will also launch its fashion and lifestyle channel Style internationally later this year.

E! Networks is looking to launch at least one, if not both of these channels before the end of the year in India. It is in talks with distribution networks to negotiate deals.'s Ashwin Pinto caught up with Comcast Entertainment Group, International president Kevin MacLellan to find out more.


Could you give me a brief overview of E!'s international business and the content it offers?

E! has two sources of revenue. One is its programme sales. It has been selling foreign programming into foreign markets as far back as 1992. This was after it launched in 1991. Then in 2002 we started to sell the E! Network into foreign markets in 2002. Over the last five years we have garnered 46 million subscribers in over 100 countries.

How important is Asia in terms of content consumption and revenue vis-?-vis Europe and the US? Which are your top three markets in this region?

It is very important. The 46 million subscribers that I mentioned did not exist till five years ago. Over a third of E! Networks subscribers come from outside the US. Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore are the top three markets in Asia. They account for 65 per cent of viewership in Asia.

We have 12 feeds globally not including the US. In Asia there are three feeds.

India is going through a period of digital transition with Cas and DTH. How do you view this market in terms of potential and has a timeline been set to launch E! and Style?

The Indian market has always been extremely interesting to me. I was part of the team that helped launch Sony in the 1990's. India has been interesting on account of the success of HBO. I was quite skeptical about how it would fare as I felt that Bollywood would be the programming that everybody wanted to see.

Now it has become apparent to me that due to the upper echelon of Indian society in terms of the wealthier people with larger disposable incomes they have a significant interest in Hollywood films. From our perspective, India is a big market to reach for in Asia. The problem was that E! launched internationally pretty late in the game in 2002-2003. Analogue was pretty full by then.

We had to find other platforms that had available capacity. We are so pleased to see DTH, IPTV taking off in India. We believe that the audience that has the money to invest in these platforms has a strong interest in Hollywood. We would like to launch E! and Style by the end of this year.

The English entertainment and lifestyle segment in India is getting more competitive. What is E!'s USP that you feel will help it stand out from the other players?

In general, entertainment and lifestyle programming is becoming more popular everywhere. In the entertainment field there is nobody else who does what E! does. We are the experts in Hollywood. We are not experts in Bollywood and to try and pretend to be anything we are not is a big mistake. We have learnt that by going into many markets, whether it is the UK, Italy, Japan, Malaysia.

We cover Hollywood better than anybody else and this is what sets us apart. To find out everything on Hollywood and see it done in a high quality rich looking channel is what viewers expect from us.

From Style's point of view there are many lifestyle channels out there from the likes of Discovery and Scripps. Most of those channels appeal to 25-49 year old females. The Style channel has been successful in the US as it appeals to a younger female crowd. You are talking about a 12-34 year old female. Women at that age are just setting their buying trends. They are choosing brands that they will use for the rest of their lives. Style targets a young, technologically savvy woman. E!'s target is 18-49.

The similarity between the two networks is that we are appealing to what we call the ABC1 demographic. This refers to a high income, highly educated, metropolitan audience.

Over the last three years how has E! gone about creating awareness in Asia?

Our aim was to go into each market and secure sophistication. There is no point in marketing unless you are strong in distribution. So what we have done is countries like Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia is spending money with the local operators. Due to the limited distribution in all Asian markets doing general marketing like ads in newspapers makes very little sense. It is important to market to viewers who can access the channel.

A good way to do that is to do marketing campaigns with the operators themselves. We do outdoor campaigns and it helps that E! has famous faces appear on the channel. We can do ads in print magazines with pictures of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston. The A-list names grab people's attention a lot more than say an ad for a documentary would.

In India you have licensing deals with broadcasters like Zee and Star. When you launch, will this side of the business get affected?

Yes! I believe that there is an important mix between sales and channels. While we do sell content to channels it is important for the viewers to know that the main place to get E! content is on the channel itself and not on other networks. Viewers must know that the best place to get news on Hollywood is E!.

However, to go back to the marketing issue, it helps to put a little of your content on the bigger networks with a broader reach. It helps familiarise the audience with the E! brand. I am sure that there will be a reduction in the content we sell once we launch.

Right now, we do volume deals with Indian broadcasters where we sell 200-250 hours of programming. This will change. The number of hours sold will come down.

Apart from India, China is a key market for most channels but has proven difficult to crack. What is your gameplan there?

We have been lucky in China. We shoot the content ourselves. We own the rights. Other studios have financing partners and they all have some rights. We produce 1100 hours of programming. We do not acquire programming nor do we commission very much. We own our content across multiple platforms. We have the flexibility to be more realistic in doing deals in China.

What has prevented some studios and production firms from being able to have a business in China is that they are inflexible in terms of what they are willing to do with their rights. We can sell 700 hours each year to multiple channels. On CCTV for instance there is an hour of content. CCTV can also use this content as they expand their broadband and mobile businesses.

The disappointment in China is not our ability to sell there. It is to have our brand be available. However the good thing about China is that the rules for online are not as restrictive. So we can sell our content on television and maintain a brand presence online.

What is the split between advertising and subscription revenues? What targets have been set?

In Asia it is all affiliate revenues. There is no advertising. In Australia and New Zealand we have a significant amount of ad revenue - 35 per cent. In Latin America most of our revenue comes from advertising as is the case with the US.

Our biggest goal is to launch Style later this year globally and to increase the subscription revenue of E!

Are you looking at working with retail firms as well with Style as it is about fashion and accessories?

What is good about Style is that it comes built in with a bunch of cross-promotional exercises. In the US the network has a lot of high-end brands. We have worked out global ad sponsorship deals. For instance, we do a programme that focusses on the Versace fashion shows.

To what extent has E! Networks' programming budget gone up over the last couple of years?

It has gone up hugely by over 50 per cent in the past five years. Most of this is due to the amount of money being spent on high end reality shows. There was a time when reality shows were inexpensive. They are now becoming almost as expensive as scripted drama and comedy. Talent has become more expensive. In general I would say that there is more creativity in the reality genre.

There was point when you had elimination reality shows and home based reality shows (like Big Brother) where you lock people in a house. Now you see reality shows that are based on game shows that are on mockumentary formats. This would be a hybrid scripted reality show. You will see more shows like MTV's Laguna Beach, which is partially scripted and partial reality.

'I believe that there is an important mix between sales and channels. While we do sell content to channels it is important for the viewers to know that the main place to get E! content is on the channel itself and not on other networks.'

What are the new shows that E! is developing?

There is a show called Paradise City, which is similar to Laguna Beach. It follows the biggest performers of Las Vegas. One character can be a playboy bunny. Another one can be a rock star.

Another show Sunset Tan looks at Beverly Hills, Malibu beach life. The wealthiest mansions and homes in the Summer become vacant. They rent for $30,000 a week from June till the end of August. Rich families from across the world come in. Their kids hang out in nightclubs, drive sexy cars.

We are doing a show on the New York socialite scene. Our aim is to expand beyond Hollywood. We will look at other wealthy people who are becoming a part of what we call pop culture.

I believe that you are creating original content for Asia. Could you shed light on this?

We will premier a show called Young Hot Asia. This is a documentary about 15 of the hottest young Asian stars. They are making a mark not just in Asia but also in Europe and the US. There have always been the Jackie Chans. Chow Yun Fats and Michelle Yeohs but in the last three years you are starting to see Asian talent that nobody had heard of before making a noise


We will do specials on film festivals held in Asia. We will look at how Asian content is influencing television content in the US and in Europe. Ideally with India there should be 70:30 mix of

Hollywood and Bollywood content. We can also have the Indian perspective on Hollywood. We can shoot in India and focus on people who are fascinated with Hollywood.

The problem is that since we are launching on digital tiers it cannot support a great deal of local production.

You recently hired American Idol host Ryan Seacrest. How has he helped boost the channel's profile?

He has become more than just our news anchor. He is also our Red Carpet host like for the Oscar Awards. He is pretty much the spokesman for the channel now. Our news ratings have risen by 50 per cent.

The median age for our news has dropped to 32 from 38 which is very low. It is also rare. National broadcast news tends to have a viewer age above 50. Ryan is bringing the younger American Idol audience with him.

What are the challenges in doing celebrity news vi-a-vis regular news?

Access is a challenge. The audience has an unending desire for gossip and for paparazzi type footage of celebrities. They want to celebrities particularly when they are not on the Red carpet all beautiful and made up. There is huge interest in looking at celebrities when they are not prepared. With E! our main source of content are celebrities and their publicists and agents.

We have to ride the line to feed the audience what they want. A lot of people cover celebrities in a mean spirited way. We need to avoid that and provide the audience with what they are looking for. When cover celebrity news you have to remember that the publicists are very powerful. Unlike other kinds of news where you are just reporting the facts here you have publicists and PR agents who are constantly trying to skew the way we cover things.

Don't you get accused of pandering to the stars to get access?

(Laughs) We are not a news company like CNN whose aim is to report in an unbiased manner. We pander to the stars on some shows but there are others where we do not. We have a documentary series E! True Hollywood Story that looks at stars who have fallen due to factors like drug use, sexuality, extra marital affairs.

We are doing one on Kirsten Dunst who am I sure is not going to be happy about everything that is on the show. We did not get information by talking to her but through sources. It is covered in a very realistic, unflattering way. On the other hand Celebrity Profile celebrates stars. So we do both types of programming. We don't apologise for it.

What are the other channels in E!'s portfolio?

We have a channel called Versus. It focusses on outdoor sports like skiing, hockey, snowboarding. It is not about extreme sports but sports that viewers are very familiar with. The other channel is G4 and it focusses on videogames. Its target group is boys 12-29. We will not launch Versus in Asia right away.

That is because you buy sports regionally. So it is difficult to have a pan regional network for it. I am more interested in launching G4 in Asia and India. Internationally G4 will launch late next year.

In India the government has banned FTV for two months. A similar fate had fallen on AXN at the start of the year. I would appreciate your views on government regulation.

India is not quite as strict as Malaysia and Singapore. We have a feed for those two countries and the content is not as open as what we air in Australia and New Zealand. We could air the Malaysia and Singapore feed in India.

This feed is more on the conservative side. As India grows I would eventually look at having a feed just for India. At the moment though the digital platforms in India do not make it economically viable to have a feed just for this country. Any international broadcaster who is planning to enter India and have a separate feed just for it has no plans to breakeven. When subscribers grow for our channel in India then we would look to have a separate feed and we would be looking for more leeway compared to Malaysia and Singapore.

One challenge for media firms in the digital age is re-purposing of content for mobile and the Internet where consumption is increasingly taking place anytime, anywhere. How is E! going about this task?

We have done well in this regard as we own all our content. Normally people who make films, dramas and comedies do not own the rights to their properties. We do not face this difficulty. Broadband and mobile can be done on a region-by-region case. We have group called Short Programming and New Media Content (Spanc).

They launched a year and a half back and already everyday we put 90 minutes of streamed content up for mobile. It is a cut down version of the shows we make and the news that we provide. Operators can also take 20-25 minutes of clips either on a VoD basis or on a SVoD basis. Some operators only take the streamed content while others only take the VoD content. Some take both.

Online we have a broadband channel called The Vine. It is available at E! Online. The site has 80 editorial people. The Vine is streaming video. One popular section is called Planet Gossip. It has video stream segments from gossip columnists all over the world.

What role are merchandising and DVDs playing in helping E! diversify its revenue streams?

I am just launching a DVD business. E! has never released DVDs overseas. We will be coming with an international DVD called Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery Secrets. It features 10 of the top plastic surgeons in Beverly Hills talking about the best way to do procedures. It looks at what procedures leave scars and which ones do not.

How has E! Online boosted its content offerings?

We cover entertainment news from an aspirational perspective. Other sites only have a section for entertainment news. Some sites cover entertainment from a paparazzi, lowest common denominator view.

We were profitable through the dotbomb era and it is still profitable. Our site has been profitable for the last seven years.

E! Online 2.0 will launch this Summer. This will have social networking. So people can chat about their favourite stars. They can go into our library, find photos of their favourite stars and swap them with each other. One can upload one's photo of a star if one has a digital camera. Taking photos of stars is happening more frequently in Los Angeles.

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