The super strength of Scripps

If Scripps was a superhero its power would be longevity. With Food Network turning 15 and both HGTV and DIY hitting landmarks in 2009, the downside of longevity is an ever expanding candle budget
November 1, 2008

When Burton Jablin thinks back on the early days of HGTV, the first lifestyle channel for the Scripps Networks’ family, he can’t remember as much as he thinks he should. He was there when it all happened, after all. But the reason the EVP of Scripps Networks can’t remember more is because of how busy the company has been since the beginning. ‘I hope no one’s telling you that we saw this coming,’ says Jablin of all the success the company has seen over the years. ‘Nobody did in the early years. We never dreamed that this would become as big as it has.’

The early years of Scripps brands were more modest than the reality of the channels today. Though Jablin’s memories may be limited, he remembers launching HGTV in 1994, back when the offices were still under construction and everyone was working in the same room. The facility was a television studio previously owned by a company called Cinetel Productions that Scripps bought out. Attached to the studio was a warehouse that had a second floor which was open to the first, creating a loft space. While the company was building an addition to create proper offices, everyone worked out of the loft, using folding tables as desks and six cubicles that Jablin figures must have been bought or rented from an old library. ‘If you had a cubicle, that was really special,’ he says, ‘because everyone else sat at these long card tables with just phones on them. That was how we launched the network.’

While it might be clichéd to say it, the truth is they’ve come a long way since then. Though the company has gone from 30 people in a loft to 1,400 people working in offices in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Nashville, San Francisco and three Knoxville locations (which will soon be one head office when construction is complete in 2010), people at each brand insist the communication Jablin describes in the beginning still exists, though on a larger scale. SVP and GM of DIY, Kathleen Finch, says each channel either speaks on the phone or walks across the hall to consult with each other daily. Fine Living’s GM Chad Youngblood agrees it is an integrated company rather than siloed, as the emerging networks (his FLN and Finch’s DIY) repurpose content from the major brands. ‘We’re pretty much in each other’s meetings all the time,’ he says.

Truthfully, Scripps has been in the TV business since the 1940s. The E.W. Scripps Company started as a newspaper company in 1878 and added radio and television to its roster in the early days of TV, controlling local television stations – two of which still exist today in Cleveland and Cincinnati – and in the ’90s started launching and acquiring channels such as HGTV and Food Network. Then, at the end of last year, E.W. Scripps Co. announced it was splitting itself in half. The split created two separate publicly traded companies, E.W. Scripps Co. (which continues to control the newspapers and the local stations), and the new Scripps Networks Interactive (which houses all the lifestyle channels and the online services). According to Jablin, this move really affects only the most senior management of the company (namely Ken Lowe, who became president and chief executive of the new branch, and Richard Boehne who is chief operating officer of E.W. Scripps Co.). As for the rest of the company, it’s pretty much business as usual.

And, these days, business as usual means hiring roughly 100 people per year and expanding the brands to find new ways to interact with consumers. That means constantly developing online endeavors through the Scripps digital arm, which has included acquiring pre-existing sites such as recipezaar, building sites around its key brands, and creating new sites in the company’s specialty categories (lifestyle, food and shelter) with sites such as green living hub and real estate listing service Food Network’s site is the top in its category online, and each brand seems to lend itself well to the Web, particularly DIY and Food, which have take-away content that requires the user to follow up afterward to get the full instructions. In the mid ’90s Food Network had a hotline viewers could call to have recipes mailed to them, so the idea that viewers need a place to go to follow up on the network’s content only makes sense.

But it isn’t enough to spin off all the channels’ programming online, says SVP of Scripps Networks Digital, Jody Jones. ‘I think assuming ideas start from one place, whether it be a television network or a production company, is shortsighted and uncreative,’ she says. ‘We as a company have done a really great job trying to turn that around.’ Jones’ approach to website creation is to develop something that can live on its own without a network. One of Scripps’ strengths when it comes to online content, says Jones, is never relying on flat editorial, how-to content, and instead making sure there is always video to pair with editorial to keep it fresh and compelling. Scripps has also been able to successfully turn user-generated content into programs down the line. For example, HGTV’s Rate My Space started as an online component where viewers (or, as Jones calls them, viewsers) shared their home designs and challenges with each other. diy’s Blog Cabin started the same way. An online call for users to help design a log cabin turned into a show when the plans were complete and handed over to the channel’s roster of expert talent. DIY created 13 half-hours around building the cabin and giving it away to a lucky viewer.

When a company lasts as long as Scripps and its brands have, one might wonder who over there has the Midas touch or made a deal with the devil. Jablin assures that it all boils down to one word: focus. ‘We’ve stayed true to what our brand promises have been, no matter which of our brands we’re talking about,’ he says. Sure, HGTV has evolved since the mid ’90s when it was a bit more dry and instructional, but the focus is still on the home and ways to make it the best it can be. Food is still about food, DIY is still about projects you can tackle on your own and FLN remains a channel about making life better. The thread that ties all the networks together is a passion for each category. ‘Not to knock any other networks, but if you go back over the history of many cable networks that start off with a focus, the history is usually that once they get a taste of success they tend to expand beyond the core that got them to where they are,’ says Jablin. ‘I don’t mean to give away our secrets to our competitors, but we took a different approach and said that the core really is the basis of success. You evolve within that focus but you don’t lose that focus.’

Food Network
Years on air: 15
Where it airs: 96 million households
Demographic: 25 to 54, slightly female skew

‘The role of Food Network is really to be your best friend in food,’ says Michael Smith, SVP of marketing, creative and brand strategy at Food Network. It sounds a little funny to buddy with a channel in such a way, but when Smith describes how the channel caters (pun intended) to its audience, we’re a little hard pressed to think of a friend who’d be willing to think so much about our needs.

Food takes time of day very seriously. It knows when you’re hungry and it tries to help you come up with meal solutions in the hours before dinner. Smith calls this programming block ‘Food Network in the kitchen.’ These are the programs anchored by Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals: programs that use the talent of home cooks – not gourmets – to show viewers that you don’t have to be a chef to make a great meal.

After dinner, when watching someone cook is suddenly way less interesting, Food’s slate switches the focus from information to entertainment. Shows like Ace of Cakes and Iron Chef America rule this block, creating a new connection with food through competition and real-life drama. What a pal.

As for the future of Food, Smith says audiences can expect to see more fun and accessible home cooks like Ray. This year the network introduced eight new hosts and Smith sees this trend continuing into 2009. For primetime, he also suspects it will be more of the same, given that this past year saw the highest-ever primetime ratings for the channel.

Food is also leading the way for the company in its recent launch of a Food Network magazine and its partnership with Coles book stores in the creation of consumer products such as cooking accessories. If all goes well with the magazine, the company hopes to do the same with HGTV in the not-too-distant future.

As for the durability of food programming through the tighter economy we’re enduring, Smith stays pretty positive. When it comes to advertising, staples such as food are some of the last things to be cut. ‘I think regardless of economic circumstances, people still have to eat,’ he says.

Years on air: 14
Where it airs: over 97 million households
Demographic: 25 to 54, slightly female skew

‘The hard part was trying to convince advertisers and distributors that a network about watching paint dry and watching grass grow was something people would be interested in,’ recalls Burton Jablin, EVP of Scripps Networks, when talking about the launch of the channel. Though surely that wasn’t the pitch the team used at the time, the network in its earlier incarnation was a dryer version of what it is today. There was still a lot of take away, but less entertainment value.

Today the network has evolved from its core of behind-the-counter style how-to programming to programs that have largely left the studio and set up shop in real people’s homes. According to HGTV president Jim Samples, it’s all about understanding the needs and desires of the audience. The cornerstones of the channel’s programming lie in the genres of buying and selling houses, design and competition reality. House Hunters sits in the seat of one of the most successful programs for the channel.

The channel gained the freedom to do the more creative, entertaining stuff after the creation of DIY in 1998. Since the launch of DIY, the focus of HGTV has been more on real estate and home décor and less on the home improvement side, which is DIY’s baby now.

Looking to the future of the channel, Samples plans to continue the evolution by creating more variety in the programs offered. This past year alone the channel has been doing well, with ratings at its highest point ever among adult audiences in the third quarter of 2008 and HGTV programming available internationally in 120 territories.

Years on air: 9
Where it airs: nearly 50 million homes
Demographic: 50/50 male/female split

If Scripps were a family, DIY would be HGTV’s little sister. It would be the kind of little sister who relies on her older sibling for support, but who is perfectly capable of standing on her own two feet. Basically, she could take care of herself in a school yard brawl.

All anthropomorphism aside, in its 10 years of existence DIY has become more than just a spin-off of HGTV. According to SVP and GM Kathleen Finch, one of the main differentiating factors of the channel is its hosts, who are all certified, licensed, genuine experts in their field. ‘We find great, telegenic, knowledgeable people and let them celebrate their expertise,’ says Finch.

When the network first began, the premise was the same – do-it-yourself television – but the focus could have been anything from fly fishing to knitting to planting a vegetable garden. Now the network has found its core audience: people who want take-away information for their home. This is another proud achievement for Finch, securing what she calls a ‘desirable audience’ made up of a 50/50 male/female skew, people who own a home and care about their abode.

For the most part, DIY commissions its programs, with a smattering of acquisitions such as This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop, which DIY secured after Finch joined the channel from her previous seven-year stint at the Food Network. Another joy of Finch’s is to come up with fun, gimmicky ways to package programming. Take, for instance, the channel’s counter programming to the Super Bowl, entitled The Toilet Bowl. That’s right, DIY is cheekily pitting a stack of bathroom programs against the manly sports event of the year. Something only little sis would dare try to pull off.

Fine Living Network (FLN)
Years on air: 5
Where it airs: 50 million households
Demographic: upscale 25 to 54

When Chad Youngblood talks about the strategy for Fine Living Network (recently rebranded as FLN) he speaks in terms of the CFO and the CEO of the family. This isn’t really the gm of Fine Living’s way of turning the family into a business (though he does seem to have an affinity for acronyms), rather he’s talking about the chief family officer, the person in charge of the family’s discretionary finances, and the chief entertainment officer, the person in charge of the remote control. In Youngblood’s experience, this is often the same person.

The FLN audience is an adult, upscale crowd with an average household income over US$75,000. These are people who have a little extra to spend and are looking for fun ways to spend that dough. ‘I think they’re young, intelligent, hard working, mostly urbanites who are looking for entertainment that doesn’t insult their intelligence,’ says Youngblood.

It’s the impetus of fun that has lead FLN to create a lifestyle program that is literally a cross between Martha Stewart and Mystery Science Theater 3000. Whatever, Martha! takes 100 clips from Martha Stewart Living and sits her daughter, Alexis Stewart, down in front of them to mock her mother while giving a little insight into what it was like to be raised by the TV icon. While the show still offers some take away from both the old Martha segments and crafts that Alexis and co-host Jennifer Koppelman Hutt cook up, it also takes the entertainment to a new level.

‘We want people to feel smarter at the end of our shows,’ says Youngblood of the channel’s programming strategy. Each program must have some take-away value so the viewers won’t feel they’ve wasted an hour of their lives when a show is over.

‘If your success metric as a business is ‘Let’s make people happy,’ instead of ‘Let’s make a whole lot of money first,’ then I think you’re starting off on the right foot,’ says Youngblood of the Scripps method. ‘Maybe I drank the Kool-Aid too long ago, but I believe in our company.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.