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Cable Operators

Shell Might Yet Be Czar

11/28/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

Jeff Shell, CEO of Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc., has emerged as the leading contender to serve as programming czar for Comcast Corp., sources said last week.

Although Comcast wouldn't comment, several sources familiar with the situation claimed Shell's hiring is a done deal. The MSO could make an announcement shortly — as soon as next month, according to one informed source.

Shell's name first surfaced roughly a year ago as a candidate for the yet-to-be-created Comcast position, a job that entails oversight of the MSO's growing content portfolio.

NEW SEARCH FIRM

The search — which began more than two years ago — then wound down, with Comcast claiming it was no longer trying to hire a seasoned cable-network veteran to oversee a group of channels that includes E! Entertainment Television, Style, The Golf Channel, Outdoor Life Network and G4TechTV. Comcast might also create new channels with Sony Pictures Entertainment, after Sony Corp. completes its purchase of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.

Sources said last week Comcast recently renewed the search for a czar yet again, retaining a new head-hunting firm, Spencer Stuart.

Shell was on vacation last week and couldn't be reached for comment.

Shell, the former CEO of Fox Cable Networks Group, joined then-troubled Gemstar in May 2002 as chief operating officer and was named permanent CEO that October. His contract with the on-screen program guide vendor expires April 30 of next year, according to several sources.

Some cable-industry insiders expressed skepticism Shell would be interested in the Comcast job, which the MSO has said would be based at its headquarters in Philadelphia. Shell is currently West Coast-based.

Two years ago, Comcast approached former ESPN and ABC Television president Steve Bornstein about the programming-chief job. Bornstein declined and instead joined the NFL Network.

Shell racked up plenty of first-hand experience overseeing programming services at Fox Cable, whose stable includes such channels as FX.

News Corp. owns 41% of Gemstar, and Rupert Murdoch brought Shell to the guide company to fix up the business, which was in disastrous shape. At the time, Gemstar was involved in a web of litigation over its patents, relations with MSOs were in tatters and former Gemstar CEO Henry Yuen and several other old-regime executives faced charges from the Securities & Exchange Commission.

MADE NICE WITH OPS

During Shell's tenure, much of that patent litigation has been settled. Gemstar also has an agreement resolving the SEC's probe into the company. Most importantly, Shell used the relationships he had with cable operators to forge new distribution deals for Gemstar with major MSOs, including Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Insight Communications Co. As part of the Comcast pact, the MSO and Gemstar formed a joint development pact to develop new IPGs for Comcast and other MSOs.

Comcast has been making moves to operate its grab bag of networks more efficiently by centralizing some operations. In September, for example, it named Dave Cassaro president of its newly created Comcast Network Advertising Sales, consolidating ad sales for most of its national programming services.

Cassaro was formerly senior executive vice president and of sales and distribution for E! Networks.

September