10:45am PT by Kate Stanhope
E! Network President Discusses Scripted Push, Kim Kardashian Paris Trauma and Peak TV
At first glance, E! viewers might mistake the glamorous red-carpet premieres, movie sets and far-off locales of The Arrangement for a real-life Hollywood story. But in reality, the drama about A-list actor Kyle West (Josh Henderson) and his new ingénue girlfriend (Christine Evangelista) actually marks the network's second foray into scripted.
Following the success of the channel's first scripted series, the recently renewed The Royals, comes The Arrangement. The show follows a struggling actress who enters into an arranged relationship with a high-profile actor and must subsequently navigate his unique relationship with a self-help guru who heads a spirituality center called The Institute of the Higher Mind. Created by Mad Men alum Jonathan Abrams, the series has drawn multiple comparisons to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes as well as the action star's relationship with Scientology — something that all parties have involved have repeatedly downplayed.
But while E! is still in the early days of its scripted side, its unscripted strategy remains consistent. Keeping Up With the Kardashians returns for its 13th season — and 10th anniversary — this month despite a production halt in the wake of star Kim Kardashian West's robbery, a topic the show will explore in the forthcoming episodes.
Ahead of E!'s eventful month, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with network president Adam Stotsky about all of that, as well as the potential for a scripted original comedy, season two of Rob and Chyna and lessons learned from the recent changes at sibling networks Esquire Network and Oxygen.
How do you see The Arrangement expanding the viewership that's tuning into E!?
We know empirically, in the three seasons that we’ve done of The Royals so far, it has brought in a significant new audience to E!'s primetime that we hadn’t previously had, so The Arrangement is building on that strategy. About two-and-a-half years ago, we took a fairly exhaustive look at what we were doing at E! and prioritized ourselves around three major areas: our red-carpet coverage, E! News, and the third was rebuilding and focusing our investment on primetime. You'll notice once Chelsea [Lately] left, we didn’t replace Chelsea. We wanted to focus on big, franchise-able, repeatable series building off the Kardashians' history. In addition to that, also diversifying out into scripted. E! has historically been an unscripted environment, so scripted allows us to go places that our unscripted cameras could never go. Our unscripted cameras can't go behind the gates of Buckingham Palace, and our unscripted cameras can't crack open what really happens with Hollywood relationships.
What made The Arrangement the right next step in the scripted space?
First and foremost, it's a terrific show. Jonathan Abrams brought us an idea that we thought was so perfectly built for E!'s brand and E!'s audience, which is really interested in big, soapy drama. It allows us to shine a light on a world that we think our audience is going to be really interested in.
Since the early stages of development, the show has garnered a lot of interest because of particular parallels to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' relationship and Scientology. How concerned were you about those comparisons?
The project is fiction. It wasn't inspired by any particular person or couple or group. In The Arrangement, our antagonist belongs to the Institute of the Higher Mind. It's a fictional self-help organization, and it pulls upon lots of resources that exist here in the Hollywood community. There's a long history of high-profile actors, executives seeking counsel from lots of organizations, so in that regard, not too much concern. I think Hollywood's got a long history of speculation about the arranged nature of many of Hollywood's relationships — that these are simply marketing and press ruses to help goose box-office interest. And so I think those two things combine make for a really rich, juicy and dramatic backdrop for which we can tell our story in The Arrangement.
Right now, you have two original scripted dramas, but where do you stand on scripted comedy? How important is it to you to add that kind of series to your lineup?
Several years ago, we acquired the rights to Sex and the City, and that was certainly a dramedy, I guess. So anything's possible for us. We're taking a measured approached to our investment in scripted. E! does about 600 hours of original programming a year. This year we'll do 20 hours of scripted — 10 hours of The Royals and 10 hours of The Arrangement. So we'll take it in a modest, measured way as we develop, but comedy is certainly plausible.
Are you actively looking for original comedies at the moment or would you say you're focused on dramas?
I would say our scripted focus is definitely in the soapy drama space. We know that's what E!'s audience is most interested in, whether it's a soapy drama like Kardashians and what unfolded with Kim in Paris, which our audience will start to see this month, or it's a fictional thing like in The Royals or The Arrangement. These are the kinds of shows that our audience buzzes about, it's what they post about, it's what they tweet about, it's what they gather to watch with their girlfriends and bottles of wine.
In terms of original programming hours, what would be your ideal balance between unscripted and scripted?
E! broadcasts to 155 countries around the globe, and so ownership is super important for us. E!, unlike some of our competitors, does not really rely on off-network syndicated fare. We think our path to continued growth and path to audience engagement is best done through originals, and so given the amount of original programming we produce, I think scripted will be a contained part. I can't see us inverting the focus from unscripted to scripted. I think our focus will be principally on unscripted and complemented by scripted.
I can't really put a number of hours on it. I think [NBCUniversal Cable chairman] Bonnie Hammer and [lifestyle networks president] Frances Berwick have always said to us, "Focus on the ideas first. Let's not worry so much about of how many hours we're looking to fill, let's focus on the biggest, most impactful and most engaging ideas." And if that means doing twice as much scripted programming next year as we're doing this year, we'll do that. If we've got a great idea and it doesn’t fit neatly into a box of how many hours of scripted programming we've said we'll make, we'll make it.
What specific scripted originals from other networks would you take for E! if you could?
There's two most recently. I think The People v. O.J. Simpson really tracked Kris Jenner's, formerly Kris Kardashian's, life pretty closely, so it's obviously set in our own backyard. The other one that we admire quite significantly is Lifetime's UnREAL. They did a terrific job of sort of pulling back the curtain on a fictional dating show.
Moving to the unscripted space, Keeping Up With the Kardashians is returning after several major real-life events in the lives of the family, most notably for Kim and her husband Kanye West. How has it been, from a network standpoint, handling those types of events with the right amount of care and caution while also ensuring the show's future? How do you balance those two interests?
Look, we're in these people's lives, and what we want to do first and foremost is handle that relationship with respect and integrity. But at the same time, the Kardashian-Jenner family and E! are committed to terrific storytelling. This is the 13th season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and I have to say, it's really lightning in a bottle. It was an unfortunate but incredibly dramatic turn of events that transpired in Paris, and because of what was happening with the police investigation, this will really be the first time that the public will see Kim talking in-depth about what transpired. Obviously, we shut down production for a period of time to ensure that Kim and the family's safety was handled appropriately. But ultimately she wanted to talk about what transpired, and this will really be the first time the media has seen that. It's definitely a balance. Our priority is the safety and the comfort of the family, for sure.
Now that it's in season 13, how much life do you think is left in the franchise?
(Laughs.) Look, every time we think we've seen it all, there's something new happening inside their family, whether it's Bruce Jenner transitioning to Caitlyn Jenner or Rob Kardashian emerging from his self-induced funk to a new relationship and fatherhood with Blac Chyna and their daughter Dream. I said to somebody awhile ago, they're like the eighth wonder of the world. They continue to have drama follow them for good at times, and unfortunately, for bad at times. It's a family that's super-comfortable living their lives in front of their camera and in front of the public eye. Because of that trust that we've been able to build with them over the course of 10 years, we're there when drama happens. I wouldn't count this show out.
There's a public that has a real insatiable interest in who they are, the lives they live and what they're going to do on a daily basis, so as long as the family continues to be comfortable with us highlighting their antics, we'll tell those stories.
The series has spawned several different spinoffs over the years. Looking ahead, what talks have you had about any potential new iterations? What else would you like to stem from that franchise?
The family has no shortage of ideas and so I could very well see us doing more with them in the future, but nothing to report just yet.
You picked up Rob and Chyna for a second season, but there have been some questions about the status of their relationship. At this point, how confident are you feeling about that second season? What can you say about the future of the show?
Watch this space. We're constantly shooting with the family, we have been shooting with Rob and Chyna consistently over the last couple of months. We think we're going to have a really interesting story to tell.
Fashion Police has undergone some talent changes in recent years. At the moment, now that awards season is wrapping up, how do you feel about the team currently in place?
Obviously, Melissa Rivers is continuing the incredible comedic legacy of her mother, complemented by the outrageousness of Margaret Cho and the fashion insight from Brad Goreski and Giuliana Rancic. We have it adjacent to these big red carpets and these are the fashion moments our audience tends to really galvanize around. That really creates lots of fun, comedic moments for us. It was a huge mantle to carry when Joan [Rivers] passed away. There's really nobody that can replace her. But having that point of connection with Melissa for us is a really great bridge. We're really, really pleased with how the show's evolved.
The NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment portfolio has undergone some changes in recent months. Oxygen is now focusing more heavily on crime, and Esquire is no longer a linear channel. How have those brand changes impacted your network? What is the takeaway from those changes?
First and foremost, all those examples underscore our need to stay nimble and flexible, and stay as close to our audience as we can. Tastes change, viewing patterns change. While it's vital to stay strategically focused, and have real clarity on who we are and what audience we're trying to serve, we think it's imperative to stay flexible and nimble as well. We live in a really dynamic media landscape, and it's imperative for us to evolve with the evolving landscape.
The E! point of view is very focused and very differentiated vis-à-vis any one of our other brethren inside the portfolio. Certainly the more clarity, the more distinction we can bring to each of our brands, the more opportunity we have to expand the entire audience footprint that we deliver and in turn, the value that we deliver to our advertising partners as well.
There are so many challenges out there facing TV networks: Peak TV, the rise of skinny bundles. What do you see as your biggest challenge moving forward?
The amount of competition brought by the over-the-top players like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, digitally through YouTube, etc. — all of that is just increased competition for available viewing hours. We see very little signs of that abating. That just becomes a real call for us to raise our game and to ensure that every idea that we greenlight and that we mount from a marketing, publicity side is as focused and as compelling as it possibly can be. I think it also changes the way that we go about marketing. There is so much choice and there is so much competition. Historically, TV marketing was sort of laser-focused on the launch and making sure that launch was as big and as wide as possible. While that's still an important aspect of launching a show, we also know that the opportunity to galvanize viewers and engage viewers throughout the entire run of a series and even past its premiere window is greater today than its ever been because of the opportunity to catch up on demand. So that marketing cycle almost never ends.
I grew up outside of Baltimore, and I was at a dinner party not too long ago and somebody mentioned to me that they heard about this show called The Wire. The Wire hasn’t been on the air for about nine years and it's also kind of the greatest show ever made. But that's the reality of the world that we're living in. We're no longer competing with what's on tonight, you're actually competing with every show that's ever been made because it's available. So that definitely changes the dynamic, it changes how we think about what kinds of shows we're going to produce, but also how we're going to go about distributing, marketing and publicizing them for sure.
The Arrangement premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on E!