The deal is signed, the plans are set and so today Joan and Melissa Rivers -- the mother-daughter duo who almost double-handedly defined gossipy red carpet coverage of the major awards shows -- will confirm they have departed E!, their home of nine years, and are moving to the TV Guide Channel.
Wait. Hold on. The what? For those who have given any thought at all to the TV Guide Channel, it generally conjures up images of scrolling television listings -- one of those stations people zip past on their way to finding an actual show to watch. True, the channel recently shrunk its scroll to less than half a screen. And on the top part, they’ve begun showing original programming, such as a weekly report on “American Idol” done by second-season finalist Kimberly Caldwell.
But in hiring the Rivers duo, as well as contracting to provide viewing guides to NBC’s multi-channel coverage of the Athens Olympics, executives believe they’re on their way toward creating a destination channel that celebrates all things TV.
“Anytime we put on anything of the moment, anything sort of special, we’ve always seen a [ratings] lift,” said Tom Cosgrove, general manager of the TV Guide Channel, which after recent deals is available in about 80 million homes. “People seem to be interested in this concept of TV for TV lovers.”
As for what prompted Joan Rivers to sign on, the comic says it’s in keeping with her longtime entrepreneurial impulse. “When I started my talk show on Fox [in 1986], they put the show on in a barn,” she notes. A contract worth $6 million to $8 million over three years played a role too. Oh, and as she and Melissa pointed out at least five times in a recent interview, part of their deal is that there will be absolutely no scrolling listings during their shows.
“E! was a wonderful home,” Melissa Rivers says, “but creatively, it was time to try something new, go to a place where they’re willing to take risks. E!'s so established that when you go in and say, ‘Let’s try it this way,’ well, it’s hard to change the formula.”
“The first time we got a 1 rating at E!, the room was filled with flowers,” Joan Rivers recalls. (She also notes that the negotiations to leave E! started long before the recent ouster of Mindy Herman as that channel’s president.) “Now it’s up to a 5 and the reaction is um-hmm. It’s become very network. I can’t wait to get back to ‘seven people watched you in Iowa’ and we’ll be dancing.”
“Here’s an opportunity,” Melissa says, “to go in somewhere and, say, follow a homeless person around with a camera and not have someone say, ‘What celebrity are you going to get in the shot?’ ”
As it turns out, the brain trust at the TV Guide Channel -- a division of Gemstar TV Guide International, which also publishes the magazine -- didn’t hire them to do shows about homeless people. They were brought in to, among other things, transfer their singular multigenerational star power to the channel as it moves aggressively into longer shows spotlighting current TV -- particularly live events like awards shows -- as well as movies and DVDs.
“What they do is build enthusiasm for the channel,” says Danila Koverman, the channel’s senior vice president for programming. “It’s right on target with what our mission is. Celebrating the Academy Awards, the Emmys, these are unique live moments.”
Opening the corporate wallet for Rivers and Rivers is just part of a major restructuring at a company that has been hit on two sides. TV Guide has lost readers as the proliferation of channels made it impossible for the magazine to publish comprehensive TV listings as it once did. And the channel, which began life as the Prevue channel, has seen its on-air program guidance undercut by TiVo and other digital services, which offer guides that negotiate the program grid and record shows at the touch of a few buttons.
“Clearly, it’s all becoming much more complicated,” says Ian Aaron, president of the TV Guide Television Group, referring to all the channel choices and technologies flooding into the TV world. He chooses to see that as an opportunity, though. “It plays to exactly why NBC did the deal with us [on the Olympics]. They want to be sure they can drive viewership to their various channels.”
To help viewers find Olympic coverage across the seven channels under the NBC umbrella, TV Guide Channel has already started working on a complementary series called “Chasing the Dream” and other special shows.
Besides Joan and Melissa Rivers, TV Guide Channel brought in Ken Taylor, host of several shows on HGTV, and actresses Katie Wagner and Holly Robinson-Peete to boost its on-air talent lineup.
It’s also starting to program longer shows, mostly around events, and has begun exploring ways of reconfiguring what’s on the screen. Aaron points to CNN and Headline News as examples, with news crawls, pop-ups and a live video window.
The Olympic deal and others promised in the near future notwithstanding, the hiring of the Rivers team is getting all the attention.
Their first big splash will be the red carpet arrivals show on Emmy Awards night (Sept. 19). But even before then, Melissa Rivers will start turning up on TV Guide Channel programs -- possibly including the network’s flagship show “What’s On” -- and she’ll be developing and producing new shows. In addition, both women enthuse repeatedly about their planned Mother’s Day special, details of which are scarce so far.
Mother and daughter say it comes back to the challenge of something new. “Fox didn’t have call letters when I went on there,” Joan Rivers says. “Truly, E! was a joke when we went on it nine years ago.”
She can’t resist coming back to one more topic: the scrolling listings. “Now the scroll is off for us, we’ll be the first scroll-free programming.”
How bad is that feature? “By the time it cycles through,” she says, “you have to reshave your legs.”