E!'s great big blonde surprise

Anna Nicole Show debuts to large Nielsens and some rough critical response

E! Entertainment Television President Mindy Herman is oddly relieved that The Anna Nicole Show mustered "only" a 4.1 Nielsen rating for its Aug. 4 debut. Had the show notched a 5.0 or higher, Herman told staffers, she'd get an Anna Nicole Smith tattoo.

"No one is prepared for this type of show, where everyone is talking about it," Herman said, who would have been thrilled with a 2.0 rating.

For better or worse—many critics said for worse—television is buzzing about Anna Nicole. Her show was the highest-rated program on basic cable last week. But what viewers must have been talking about was her slurred speech, unsteady gait and just plain space-cadetness.

Herman contends that Smith is playful and the show is well inside the bounds of cable. There's no swearing and, technically, no nudity. "In the competitive landscape of television," she said, "I don't believe this show is outside of the norm."

As for Anna's appearance, E! execs insist she's far from dumb and is not on drugs.

E! is planning 13 episodes at a cost that's said to be less than $100,000 per episode. Just in case the show is a hit, E! has already locked up several more seasons.

But is Anna Nicole the flavor-of-the-week or the next big reality sitcom? Audience researchers say it typically takes three weeks to tell: Week one brings in curious samplers; in week two, some return and bring new viewers with them; by week three, a show becomes a habit—or not.

That was the case with The Osbournes, which debuted to a strong 2.8 rating back in March. Its audience grew nearly every week, averaging a 4.4 rating for the season. A late-April episode nabbed a spectacular 5.9 rating.

E! wisely launched its show in August, when there's less opposition from broadcast networks. Come September, though, The Anna Nicole Show
will face competition from Sunday-night football on ESPN and the new broadcast season.

"They have about a month to make the Anna Nicole Show
appointment viewing for the masses, like The Osbournes," said Horizon Media head of research Brad Adgate.

Another coup for E!: Smith's first audience is youthful, with 1.7 million viewers 18-34 years old and 2.7 million adults 18-49. Early advertisers—notably, Taco Bell, McDonalds, Old Navy and Almay—are squarely targeting those viewers.

E! sold early episodes in its scatter-market schedule. Now network sales execs are hurriedly crunching numbers to sell the show on its own. The Osbournes
eventually commanded $150,000 per 30-second spot. But, unlike MTV, E! also needs Anna Nicole
as a promotional platform for other shows. "My ad sales guys will tell me we need to sell it," said Herman, "but we need to look at the long-term value."


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?