Comcast opens its wallet to bolster Kardashian-airing E! network

A-Rod & J-Lo
Jennifer Lopez arrives at the People's Choice Awards at the Microsoft Theater Jan. 18 in Los Angeles.

For years, cable networks — ESPN, Fox Sports, and others — bought audience by dishing out tens of billions of dollars on media rights for live sports, moving high-rated college and pro games behind the cable paywall.

Now, Comcast has done this with the populist People's Choice Awards, which garnered 6.7 million viewers when it aired on CBS in January. Comcast-owned NBCUniversal has acquired the show and will televise in 2018 the you-vote-for-the-winners gala on the cable network E!, best known for celebrity-gawking and the Kardashians.

Echoing almost exactly what TV executives say about sports, Bonnie Hammer, chair of cable entertainment at NBCUniversal, said in a published report: "We live in a time-shifted world where the value of live events has never been greater."

The huge marketing power of Comcast/NBCUniversal  should be able to drive higher viewership for the awards show, which is based on hundreds of millions of votes cast by TV viewers. Indeed, the Philadelphia corporation itself could be considered its own advertising giant promoting its entertainment, news, and telecom services.

NBCUniversal reportedly paid $8 million to $10 million for the awards show, which had been owned by the consumer-goods giant Procter & Gamble.

The deal comes at a time of uncertainty at cable networks. Cable-TV ratings have declined, and industry insiders  — including the head of NBCUniversal, Steve Burke — warn that weaker networks could go dark.

A big problem: Broadcast networks such as ABC, NBC, Fox, and CBS are now piling new charges, called retransmission fees, into monthly pay-TV bills, leading to bill inflation and consumer angst. 

NBCUniversal itself has canceled its Esquire cable network. 

E! seems safe from such a fate. It only costs about 30 cents a month for pay-TV distributors, such as Comcast Xfinity, Verizon FiOS, or DirecTV, to carry it to subscribers, according to the research firm SNL Kagan. Including advertising, the network generated $563 million in revenue in 2016.

But Keeping Up With the Kardashians isn't getting any younger, and E! has to stay relevant with a young, gossipy millennial audience.

"With this acquisition, we are harnessing our entertainment authority, live-event expertise and huge multi-platform reach to take fans beyond the red carpet and offer a true end-to-end consumer experience," E! president Adam Stotsky said in a statement.