NBCUniversal’s Frances Berwick Takes on Niche Network Challenge

Inside of a year, Frances Berwick has gone from running one high-gloss cable network for NBCUniversal to overseeing a family of four.

With her promotion last week to prexy of NBCU Cable’s Lifestyle Networks Group, Berwick has taken on the formidable challenge of growing niche cable channels at a time when even the biggest entertainment cablers are struggling with audience erosion. The 18-year Bravo
vet was given the reins of Oxygen a year ago by NBCU Cable chief Bonnie Hammer; now she’s added oversight of E! Entertainment and Esquire Network.

The restructuring that put, under one roof, four channels trading on lifestyle, celebrity and pop culture-centric programming seems like the kind of move that should have been made — but for executive turf wars — back in 2011, when Comcast Corp. acquired NBCUniversal.

Berwick is a stylish Brit described by friends as whip smart, with a dry wit and a knack for staying ahead of social trends. She’s blessed with good taste that runs the gamut of high- and low-brow content, and an ability to translate ideas into shows.

“She is a team-oriented, steady leader,” says former Bravo topper Lauren Zalaznick, who credited Berwick with developing “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” the show that turned Bravo from a sleepy arts channel into a cable powerhouse. “Anyone who knows her at work will attest to her embodiment of the rare combination of saintly patience and devilish stubbornness, which yields clarity of vision and continued excellence.”

Berwick will need those skills, because her newly adopted channels need serious help. E! has been mostly stagnant ever since it took off in 2007, with the dawn of the Kardashians. Esquire is just a year old (it’s the former Style channel dressed in natty men’s clothes) and has yet to make a mark.

Hammer is betting Berwick has the chops to not only bring sizzle to E! and Esquire, but to make her channel cluster more than the sum of its parts, through cross-promotion and possibly some cross-pollination of programming and talent.

Hammer no doubt was impressed by the approach Berwick and her team took in the effort to breathe life into Oxygen. The cabler’s rebranding campaign launches Oct. 7, with a focus on a multicultural young femme demo. The 11 new series rolling out in the coming months will broaden the scope of Oxygen’s programming well beyond the travails of Tori Spelling.

“This is the most diverse generation we’ve ever seen,” Berwick says. “We wanted the channel to reflect that diversity and the things that are in the zeitgeist for these young millennial women.”

Berwick sees her task as executing a kind of “cradle-to-grave” strategy as far as adults in prime advertising demos are concerned. Her focus is on using the four channels to target distinct strains of adult viewers from their early 20s through their mid-40s. She notes that NBCUniversal’s advertising sales team already pitches the channels as a lifestyle cluster to advertisers, so it makes sense to take that approach in developing programming and marketing strategies.

“The great thing is that these networks feel very distinct but also complementary,” Berwick says. “We will be able to do a ton of cross-promotion. There are natural parallels from Bravo to Esquire to Oxygen to E! that we will use without duplicating any one thing.”

Berwick’s admirers say there is little doubt she is on a career path that will eventually reach Hammer-like heights. The NBCU Cable topper herself cannot contain her enthusiasm for Berwick’s skills as a strategic thinker and manager at a time when the TV business is facing monumental change.

“We all need to be honest and brutal with ourselves on how we use our programming and marketing to make noise in this fragmented world,” Hammer says. “Franny has been so ahead of the game for so long. I have tremendous faith in this woman to keep doing what she’s doing with more success.”