When it comes to creating captivating lifestyle shows, according to our panel of experts assembled for this roundtable, a few rules apply. Among them: keep it simple, find talent that can travel, and think outside the box (meaning the TV set).
Steve Cheskin: EVP programming, TLC
Harold Gronenthal: SVP & general manager, program acquisitions and international development, Rainbow Media
Mary Ellen Iwata: VP international programming & development, Scripps Networks International
Clare Laycock: Channel head, Home & Really, UKTV
Lauren Lexton: Executive producer, Authentic Entertainment
Realscreen: First off, let’s talk about the present. What is working in terms of lifestyle programming right now, and what’s cooling off?
MARY ELLEN IWATA: I can say that for Scripps Networks, definitely food, food, food. It’s so big right now. We’re rebranding FLN to be the Cooking Channel, but even the non-food channels, like TLC, Fox or Bravo in the U.S., are all scheduling food shows. In the UK, Channel 4 has a food block. I’d say food has been heating up and is getting bigger. In terms of cooling off, anything that’s targeted towards extremely upscale consumers, with the economy the way it is. I don’t see a lot more.
STEVE CHESKIN: I’d agree that food is heating up, especially as more players get into the category. I also think there are more and more players in the wedding category. I’m with Mary Ellen – I don’t think that there are that many areas that are cooling off. In property and home, there are probably fewer shows out there than there have been in the past, but I think it’s a cycle, and when people find the next hits, it’ll be right back.
HAROLD GRONENTHAL: I’d echo a little bit of what Steve is saying, in that internationally, we’re finding wedding and relationship programming is on the upswing. For WE tv in Asia, we’re getting a great response to the wedding content that’s on the channel. We can see that relationship shows, pre- or post-wedding, are spinning out of that. On the Sundance side, our green content internationally is attracting an audience both on an operator and consumer level – particularly shows like The Lazy Environmentalist that attempt to take the whole green thing and make it more for the average person.
CLARE LAYCOCK: Anything we take we’re looking for that emotional story to shine through. At the same time, for us the simple formats seem to work better – they’re the ones that cut through more. So it’s a matter of having that balance between getting the emotional story, and the beginning, middle and end for each episode and also having that simplicity, where people know what they’re going to get.
LAUREN LEXTON: From a production standpoint, it’s our job to listen to what the networks are saying in terms of what’s heating up for them. But regarding the shows we tend to develop, they’re more personality-driven when it comes to lifestyle programming. Looking at what’s doing well and what can travel internationally, shows that aren’t just about competition but also have some sort of stakes involved work well from a storytelling perspective.
RS: Obviously talent is still a hugely important part of making a lifestyle property click…
MEI: I’d agree with that. Lauren has one of the strongest-performing shows with Ace of Cakes, and that’s totally personality-driven.
SC: For us, Cake Boss has been a huge hit, and clearly [the success comes from] Buddy [Valastro], his family and the team of people he has working with him, their personalities and the great cakes. But it goes back to differentiating yourself. Talent really makes that difference: you can have a great idea but you really need the talent aspect too.
CL: For the UK, there are things that work: Ace of Cakes and Extreme Makeover work because they’re almost one of a kind [properties], but there’s a lot of lifestyle programming that we look at from overseas where the concept is fine but because of the talent, it just wouldn’t translate. That’s a real challenge that we face both in bringing content over and exporting our stuff.
RS: Where do you want to take your lifestyle properties next in terms of development and how do you keep things fresh?
MEI: Injecting strong personalities helps. In the past, a lot of lifestyle shows were more informative but now, in order to be competitive, they have to be more entertaining with strong characters and good stories. That was one of the big challenges at HGTV, but now you’ll see [them] rolling out more personalities, and going more into the reality area. That’s one way they’ll be able to freshen their look. With personalities, it’s hard to get them to work everywhere but if they can at least work in more than one territory then we’ll look for others that can work regionally as we roll out more channels.
CL: So you get your local bits as well. When you conduct focus groups, it’s the personalities that people remember much more than the show titles or even the channels. It’s a very useful way to make you stand out from the competition.
SC: I think it’s about both. You need great talent but in terms of innovating you really have to have new ways to tell the stories and find new formats…. That’s why at TLC we generate ideas internally but we also have great relationships with outside production companies like Lauren and Authentic and we look to them as well to bring in great ideas.
HG: It’s all about finding new stories to tell. As Sundance in particular turns to more factual programming, whether it’s Man Shops Globe or Brick City, it’s about finding new angles. We all know that we can find shows that follow a format, and we can go in our own directions with it. But with Sundance, we’re looking for stories that haven’t yet been told.
MEI: This is perhaps a little more drastic but sometimes you need to do it – sometimes you need to bring a new production company on board to bring new life to a series. For instance, HGTV’s big tent pole event is Design Star, and they wanted to put new life into it so they have Mark Burnett producing it this year. We’re very excited about that in International, because we feel he’ll be able to bring a much more international feel to it and then we’ll be able to put it on other channels around the world.
LL: Good producing is simple producing. Something like House Hunters is a good example of a super-simple format that people will just get. And that can be difficult sometimes because it can be too simple.
RS: Let’s talk about the 360 approach, which entails interactive and ancillary avenues. There are some lifestyle properties that have done this quite well.
EI: The food category can live everywhere, so that’s one of the easy ones. But as you go into the deals, you have to think about the chef, the books, the products, the recipes going online. Once you’ve done it you think about it for everything: design, fashion, home… If you aren’t thinking 360 at this point, you’re way behind.
SC: With the whole 360 approach it changes so fast now that you have to be thinking so far beyond even where we are today so that you’re anticipating what the future needs are. Here at TLC, from the very start, we discuss the elements of the show so that everyone’s a part of it and we can anticipate what those needs are going to be down the road.
CL: The other critical thing is you really need to know who your consumers are. Different targets have different behaviors from platform to platform.
LL: From a production company perspective, we do take 360 very seriously and know that it’s where things are heading, so we’re always thinking about what those elements could be when we’re coming up with show ideas.
RS: To wrap up, if everyone could break out their crystal balls and let me know where they want to take lifestyle programming in the near future… where do you want to go?
MEI: I’d love to coproduce internally and with our domestic partners try to develop shows that will work for them domestically and internationally. With the launch of the Cooking Channel, to differentiate themselves from the Food Network, they want to try an international block of programming. Aside from food, it’s finding shows that will work internationally and domestically. Finding lifestyle topics that will please big audiences globally is a challenge we’re working on right now.
HG: I’d echo what Mary Ellen was saying. On the WE and Sundance front, our biggest mission is to figure out ways to make the domestic programming work internationally. We make no bones about the fact that we’re exporting American brands and content and it’s not always going to work.
LL: I just wanted to get back to the simplicity thing. We’re producing a show now that’s perhaps the simplest concept in the world but it could easily go overseas, and that’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate. You get chefs from all over the world talking about their favorite meals. It’s simple, simply produced, fun, and you get it from the title. We’re always looking for the coolest, most complicated project as well – we want our Project Runway – but if we can keep doing shows like The Best Thing I Ever Ate forever, that’d be fantastic.
SC: I like the thought of a simple idea because it’s just that much easier to promote.
CL: The other thing about the simpler formats is they’re more repeatable, so in terms of ROI, it’s a much more positive story. If you can get them right you can run with them for years.