E! President Suzanne Kolb owes much of her network's success this year to an extremely divisive family.
Hours of Kardashian-centered programming — especially Kim Kardashian's start of a notoriously short marriage — fueled ratings for the network that Kolb took over the network in July after serving as president of marketing, news and online for both E! and Style.
Kolb (left), who knows as much as anyone about the reasons for the Kardashians baffling-to-many popularity, talked to us about why people watch their shows.
Looking back at 2011 and ahead to the next two years, she also discussed E!'s plans to introduce a one-hour dramedy as its first scripted show in 2013, its place in the NBC Universal corporate family since Comcast acquired the company in January, and its growing reputation as a proving ground for NBC.
You've probably seen as much research as anyone into why the Kardashians are so popular with so many viewers. Can you explain why people watch their shows?
At their core, the Kardashians are an incredibly bonded, loving, large family who live an incredibly large life. And if you actually look at the history of television, there's a pretty large number of families with that blend resonating with viewers. This just happens to be the first reality show that does it.
In many ways when you look at the year … there's obviously been a lot of major events in the Kardashian family's lives. It's just an incredibly fascinating drama that's played out. But at its core, you know that they're going to end up around that dinner table together. … I think there's something emotionally aspirational around that family dynamic and visually aspirational about the way that family lives.
You mentioned aspirational viewers. Some viewers watch shows because they want to be like the people on the screen, and some to laugh at them. Are the Kardashians' viewers in the first group?
From every piece of research I've seen, people aspire to be them or to befriend them.
So there's no section of the audience watching the way they watch "Real Housewives," saying, 'I can't believe how trashy this is'?
I'm sure there are some people out there. I always think it's funny when people say they don't like a show and then they can tell you the name of every character and every plot. … There are other reality shows out there where you're watching the show primarily to see really bad behavior, and with the Kardashians you're not really watching for that.
I mean, they've definitely made their mistakes here or there. They've been very open about them in the last couple of months . … But you don't watch for them to have bad behavior. You watch for sort of over- the-top situations and really a very soapy family dynamic. Nobody's flipping a table.
Did you take seriously the petition to cancel the Kardashian shows?
We take every viewer comment seriously, but no. We did not consider not to be in business with the Kardashians.
What's your plan for getting into scripted programming?
We are not expecting the scripted shows to actually premiere until 2013. 2012 will be our year of developing and piloting to select at least one scripted show to go on the air in '13. … We're trying to look at something that really fits into pop culture now and fits into that landscape. We're not necessarily looking for anything that's extremely on the nose of Hollywood celebrity. We're looking at a broader range than I think some people might think we're looking at.
…We're looking at starting a 60 minute [show] as our ideal scenario and we're looking at kind of a dramedy. I don't think we'd put anything on the air that's super, super dark… and at the same time a half-hour sitcom, there are a lot of those happening right now, they're doing incredibly well, and at the same time there are some things about that that are just harder from a launching and scheduling standpoint if you're going to be the first scripted show out of the gate.
Do you feel a lot of pressure, like E! is expected to be the next big thing in the NBCU family?
That's exactly where we want to be sitting as part of a new company. A new company has a certain honeymoon period to it, and I am more than happy that to be at the center of that honeymoon.
Do you get any sense within the company that all eyes are on you?
I wouldn't say all eyes. There's a lot going on at NBCU, and there's a broadcast network that a lot of people are very focused on, in terms of having that continue to thrive under [NBC Entertainment president] Bob Greenblatt's leadership.
Have you talked to the network about whether Ryan Seacrest could continue to work with E! if he joins NBC's "Today" show?
I read that. Ryan and what's going on with Ryan is one thing I'm not going to talk about.
Do you think E! has become a proving ground for NBC, given the sitcom based on "Chelsea Lately" host Chelsea Handler and Joel McHale of "The Soup" starring on "Community"?
You can add Whitney Cummings to that list too, as one of the people who was on the "Chelsea" roundtable. I think that's actually a sign of E!'s ability to be at the forefront of what's going on in terms of pop culture and talent. Yes, we cover many of the people that have already become established. But we also take gambles on people earlier in their careers and see what happens from there.
What I think is the nicest part is these people are able to expand their careers without leaving their home base. Joel McHale has gone into "Community," which is great, and we're happy for him. But he still does "The Soup" and "The Soup" is thriving. Chelsea is expanding what she's doing and at the same time we've just ensured that she'll be doing "Chelsea Lately" for several years to come.
We've got a track record for finding talent and then we have a track record of keeping them as their careers are still growing.
Also read: Chelsea Handler Re-Signs With E!
Do you think McHale will stay with "The Soup" for years to come?
I certainly hope so. I believe so. There's lot of reasons to believe yes. He's just a wonderful face for the network. Chelsea, same thing. I think Chelsea, because of the format of her show, is in a very unique position. It's a breeding ground and a proving ground for new comedians.
What are your other goals for E!?
We're definitely looking ahead to expand and move it to an entirely new level and take advantage of this momentum that we have at the end of 2011. What you're going to see in 2012 is us taking steps toward that… Moving "The Soup" to Wednesdays after 7 years on Friday is a big step for us. I think you'll continue to see us nurture "Chelsea Lately" and "Fashion Police" and news, and at the same time i think you'll see us continue to look and I believe find the right companion to build upon the Kardashian momentum.
… Sometimes when people talk about where a network can grow or evolve, there's this belief that somehow that comes from a point of weakness. And I think on E! right now, what I'm really proud of is we have so many things that are working. And then to have the opportunity corporately to feel like you've got a window of time where people will support more dramatic growth, then that's an exciting point to be at.
If you feel like that's the reason that you should hopefully get that investment, because you've got the track record, you're not a fix-it situation. You're a build-it.