On March 12, E! Entertainment general manager Adam Stotsky gathered staff in the lobby of the network's Los Angeles offices to toast its new scripted series, The Royals. But as Stotsky was wrapping up his speech, employee phones began vibrating.
Kathy Griffin, who had replaced the late Joan Rivers as the grande dame of Fashion Police, had just announced via Twitter that she was following former panelist Kelly Osbourne's lead and quitting the show after seven episodes. Though Stotsky and his boss, NBCUniversal Lifestyle Networks Group president Frances Berwick, weren't entirely blindsided by Griffin, the tone of her statement -- she blamed the show for "a culture of unattainable perfection and intolerance toward difference" -- and her publicity tour that followed (during which she called Fashion Police a "dog pile" on The View) caught them off guard.
Now, rather than try to move forward with just Giuliana Rancic and new addition Brad Goreski, as the network first announced, The Hollywood Reporter can reveal that E! will put Fashion Police on an extended hiatus. The three remaining episodes scheduled to shoot this spring will be scrapped, giving the team time to recast and reboot. The new plan is to return in the fall with six or seven episodes tied to major events, including the Emmys.
"With the benefit of hindsight, we definitely brought it back too soon," says Berwick in an interview in her New York office. The executive added E! to her portfolio mere weeks after Rivers' September death, and in the months since, she has had to deal with a barrage of controversies, including backlash to the network's "mani cam" red carpet feature (Julianne Moore called it "humiliating" and other stars refused to participate), and an #AskHerMore Twitter campaign against fashion-focused interviews. In addition, there's the will-they-or-won't-they Bruce Jenner transgender docuseries (insiders say they will) and the Fashion Police fallout that began when Rancic suggested singer Zendaya's dreadlocks "smelled like patchouli oil … or weed" on the show's post-Oscars telecast. The controversies come as NBCUniversal cable chief Bonnie Hammer has said she wants E! to take a more "aspirational" tone, and they highlight a subtle shift in celebrity culture and E!'s role in what The New York Times called on March 15 its "untenable setup that one day reveres celebrities on the red carpet and the next day marches them onto a gangplank and pushes them into the water."
In the wake of the departures and the swirl that accompanied them, Berwick and her team, along with Fashion Police executive producer Melissa Rivers, considered canceling the show. But ultimately they concluded they weren't willing to give up on the 5-year-old franchise, and its nearly 1 million loyal viewers (though the show has lost audience without Joan Rivers). "There was a lot of noise and drama that are really not helpful or additive to the creative process, but there's a real love for this show," explains Berwick, who adds with a laugh, "Given the focus on this, the ratings should really be the size of The Walking Dead."
Despite the controversy -- or perhaps because of it -- Berwick and E! executive vp original programming Jeff Olde have been inundated by reps looking to get talent on the show. "It proves what we're saying," says Olde, "people love Fashion Police." Both Goreski, a stylist, and Rancic, a longtime face of E!, will remain as central figures when the series returns. Of the latter's dreadlocks quip, a line suggested by the show's writing staff, Berwick says, "It was absolutely misinterpreted, but she handled it completely appropriately." (Osbourne cited the comment as her reason for quitting, thought she is said to have been looking for an out because her E! deal precluded her from participating with her family in a planned VH1 reboot of The Osbournes.)
What also will remain is the show's comedic tone, which Berwick and Olde believe has been ignored in the debate spurred by Griffin. "I felt like I was being forced to comment about pictures of beautiful women in perfect dresses and say bad things," the famously acerbic comic told the ladies of The View. (Upon leaving, Griffin, who's made a career of blasting celebrities, reached out to industry friends asking them to lend their support on social media.) But Berwick, who had worked with Griffin for years at Bravo, takes issue with the assessment, arguing that Fashion Police has always tried to stay light. "The show is about comedy and fashion," she says, "and those are very light, frothy, fun subjects."
Still, the E! executives acknowledge that they have heard the criticism and are assessing the tone of the network's red carpet coverage. "You want to be evolving with the times, and we are really taking the mani-cam question very seriously," says Berwick, who notes it started as a "cute" thing. "If people don't want to do it, they shouldn't be forced to do it." (The mani cam was not used for the Oscars pre-show telecast.)
But she also suggests that E! has become a target for the entire awards-season charade, which seems to get bigger each year. "There's a lot that's frivolous about the whole Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe parade, and then at the heart of it, there's some great, creative work," she says. "E! is not a network that takes itself seriously." She cites The Soup host Joel McHale and his weekly lampooning of TV stars including E!'s own Kardashian family. "To the extent that this has all gotten very intense and serious -- it's meant to be fun. When it stops being fun or if we think that we're offending or crossing a line, absolutely, that's the time to re-evaluate and that's what we're doing, frankly, with things like the mani cam."
This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.