At E!, youth will be served

By aiming at younger demos, the net's succeeding—and then there's Anna Nicole

Sniff out a drop in Nielsen ratings, and, usually, there's an illness pestering a cable network. For E! Entertainment Television, though, the numbers don't tell the True Hollywood

"I could create a stunt pretty easily that would pop a household rating," said E! President Mindy Herman, "but I would bring in people my parents' age."

For Herman, fewer viewers mean more—so long as they are younger.

The celeb-obsessed niche net has seen prime time ratings waver between 0.4 and 0.6 over the past year, according to Nielsen. In the second quarter, household ratings dipped 7%, to a 0.44, but delivery to adults 18-34 is up 24%, to adults 18-49 up 12%.

E! is a rare bird. It's a mature niche net, launched in 1990 and piped into nearly 80 million homes. Early hits like Talk Soup
and True Hollywood Stories
put E! on the map. But, in recent years, innovation has dried up. Much like VH1's famed Behind the Music, E!'s bio series started to define the network.

Count on a plump, busty blonde bombshell to change that.

Former Playboy
Playmate Anna Nicole Smith stars in an Osbournes
-like reality sitcom bowing Aug. 4 at 10 p.m. ET.

"We've had hits before, but we've never had a hit with this much buzz," said Herman.

Cameras will trail 36-year-old Smith daily, along with her lawyer; her teenage son, Daniel; her purple-haired assistant; and her dog, Sugar Pie.

"It's the story of a woman trying to make it in the big city." Herman says, likening it to Mary Tyler Moore
or Roseanne.

Where Ozzy is a rock star, though, it's not clear what Anna is or does (in that, she's more like Ozzie Nelson). We hear she goes bowling, may get her driver's license and wants to act. Asked by TV critics gathered in Pasadena, Calif., why people will tune in, she replied blankly, "I don't know. I can't answer that." (She was married to late oil baron J. Howard Marshall II and stands to inherit $89 million.)

But do young viewers care about her?

"How many 18- to 34-year-olds knew Ozzy that well? It's not like he arrived on the scene five years ago," says Magna Global USA's research chief Steve Sternberg.

Smith is the subject of a Hollywood Stories
episode that has aired 40 times. Each play, E! says, pops above-average ratings, suggesting that curious viewers want more.

The Anna Nicole Show
is part of E!'s design to hook young eyeballs. Last year, an aging prime time audience had E! execs fretting. Median viewer was 43 years old, according to Magna Global USA research. (That's young by industry standards, but E! execs aim even lower.)

The net's first move was painful. Mysteries & Scandals, a popular but old-skewing show, was yanked from prime, and True Hollywood Stories
moved back to 8 p.m. ET. "That dropped our ratings," said Herman, "but we knew it would."

Four new series—including Rank,
a "what's hot, what's not" show, and interview show Revealed
—were added. "They play more to pop culture and what's happening in entertainment now," explained E! programming chief Mark Sonnenberg. The shows play younger: Nearly 70% of the audience is adults 18- to 49.

In upfronts, advertisers rewarded E!'s changes. While many cable nets' CPMs were down or flat, younger-skewing channels like MTV, Comedy Central and E! saw increases. E!'s CPMs rose 7%, and total ad revenue was up $42.5 million from last year, according to Morgan Stanley.

"They have a lot of currency with their coverage of big events like the Oscars and the Emmys," said Andrew Donchin, director of national broadcast at Carat USA.

E! promises to keep delivering and has 15 shows in development. On the way for late 2002 is another reality/comedy hybrid, America's Favorite Houseguest, on which a comedian moves in with a family prepping for a big event. Anna's next wedding, perhaps?


E!valuation Time

It got fat off Anna Nicole Smith and Howard Stern, but breakout success has been elusive. Network chief Mindy Herman's future is on the line. After 14 years, why isn't E! the ESPN of entertainment?