E! Entertainment Television is expected Monday to name Fran Shea as acting president of the Los Angeles-based cable network, replacing Lee Masters, who is leaving at the end of the year to become head of a new company focused on interactive television programming.
Shea has been the senior vice president of programming at E! for nine years, virtually from the network's beginning, bringing such shows as "Talk Soup," "E! True Hollywood Story" and the televised highlights of Howard Stern's radio talk show to the channel.
But some in Hollywood and the cable industry were surprised by the choice because of the channel's lackluster ratings and fading hits. Some cable industry executives expected the job to go to an outsider with a higher profile than Shea.
Officials at Walt Disney Co. and Comcast Corp., which control the channel in partnership, did not return phone calls Friday.
E!'s ratings have historically been in the bottom tier among the rated cable networks. While the channel is distributed to about 53 million homes, an average of only about 140,000 of them tune in during a given day. And some cable executives say the channel has become stale as its most popular programs have aged.
Despite low ratings, advertisers have been willing to pay to reach the pure 18-to-49 age group that E! attracts, enabling the channel, estimated to be worth more than $800 million, to recently begin turning an annual profit of about $50 million.
Shea, one of several members of E!'s management team to apply, was endorsed by Masters and was considered a favorite in part because of the desire for continuity at the cable channel. Masters built a team of nine executives that largely stayed intact for nine years. Their contracts are similar to Masters', entitling them to stock payouts when their contracts expire this month.
Disney and Comcast wanted Shea to take the presidency. Shea, recently returning from maternity leave, would commit to the position only on an acting basis.
The E! post is one of several vacancies atop cable channels. The owners of Lifetime Television, a 50-50 joint venture of Disney and Hearst Corp., are not expected to renew the contract of President Doug McCormick when it expires at the end of the year. And Doug Herzog recently resigned as president of Comedy Central to become president of Fox Entertainment.