Lee Masters has resigned as president and chief executive of E! Entertainment Television, ending a nine-year stint as architect of the Los Angeles-based cable channel that focuses on celebrity programming and news.
No successor has been named for Masters, whose resignation came as a surprise to many in the cable industry and is a blow to Comcast Corp., which has management control of E! but shares ownership with Walt Disney Co., Liberty Media Corp. and Media One.
Masters said that he is ready for a new challenge after nine years. "I wanted to jump into the deep end of the pool again," said Masters, who built the channel from scratch in 1990 into an enterprise that reaches 52 million subscribers, logs profit of about $50 million a year and is worth more than $850 million.
Executives close to Masters say his contract, which expires at the end of the year, provides for a payday of about $15 million on his departure.
While Masters is widely praised for assembling a top-notch management team, analysts say his departure comes at a critical moment of expansion for E!. It is in the process of launching its first new channel, Style, at a time when space on cable systems is particularly tight and rivals are paying for carriage.
Without other major channels, Comcast lacks the clout enjoyed by such rivals as Time Warner, whose stable of cable channels gives it leverage with operators to launch new services. Some analysts question whether Comcast has the critical mass in cable programming to be a long-term survivor.
But Brian Roberts, chief executive of Comcast, said the division will remain strong. "E! is to Hollywood what CNN is to New York, and you can imagine an E! store and all sorts of new ways of making money."