production in the lifestyle genre was supposed to boom. As the U.S. cable landscape continues to mature and attract new services, JOHN KENNEDY takes a reading on channels dealing in lifestyle, and finds that the market, while stable, has hit a plateau
Despite the growth in U.S. specialty cable, and a new tier of digital channels pending, producers and distributors of lifestyle shows haven’t experienced the boom they were expecting. They report that the U.S. services are not buying much, and they aren’t paying much either.
The key to sustaining a viable business in this genre is volume, according to Michael Shepard, North American distribution manager at Toronto-based Canamedia, producer/distributor of lifestyle shows, including Homes By Design and Foodessence. ‘You have to have a lot of shows on a lot of channels,’ he says. ‘You just have to slug it out.’
Shepard hasn’t noted a decrease in the number of acquisitions the specialties are making, but if the market is stable, so are license fees. ‘They haven’t gone up,’ he adds.
Most channels will pick up lifestyle shows for as little as US$1,000 per half-hour, though the average seems to be between US$3,000 and US$5,000. Shepard adds that lifestyle, particularly how-to programs, can be difficult to sell abroad, where there are fewer specialty channels and a general reluctance towards airing dubbed material.
Lifestyle producers say the key to getting a foot in the door of the U.S. specialty cable market is to pitch formats and ideas with commissions or coproductions as the goal. Ownership of programs – and the ancillary revenues – are more important than ever to the specialties.
In their inaugural years, most specialty channels were busily acquiring series to fill their schedules. However, as they became more firmly established, they began commissioning more and producing in-house.
Eight years ago, for example, most of Discovery Channel’s daytime schedule consisted of acquisitions and packaged programming – blocks of programs acquired from distributors. Today, it’s a different story: almost 100% is commissioned. ‘We own almost every show,’ says Chuck Gingold, senior vp and general manager of daytime programming at Discovery Networks.
Gingold takes some credit for bringing how-to strip programming to daytime tv. ‘It had been a staple on public television on weekends, but no one had done anything during the week,’ he says. Discovery has since created and developed successful brands, including Lynette Jennings and Home Matters.
Home and Garden Television of Knoxville, Tennessee, is also to credit for creating a mainstream venue for how-to and lifestyle shows. HGTV has filled its schedule almost entirely with original programming, on topics ranging from home decorating and gardening, to car care and quilting, leaving producers and distributors with the challenge of coming up with one-of-a-kind concepts.
Burton Jablin, HGTV’s senior vp of programming, is hard-pressed to describe the kind of show he might be willing to acquire or commission. ‘It would have to be either a wonderful talent – someone who we say we’ve got to have on HGTV,’ he explains, ‘or a truly original take on something that fills a hole on our schedule.’
Most programming brass at the specialty channels surveyed echoed Jablin’s comment, stressing that there are very few gaps in their programming currently.
‘We’re in pretty good shape,’ explains Ron Dixon, executive vp of programming/production at Kaleidoscope, the San Antonio, Texas-based health and wellness channel. About a quarter of the schedule is acquired, while original shows make up the balance, and Dixon says he’s generally satisfied with the mix. But his door is not yet completely closed to producers with ideas to pitch. ‘We’re always interested in looking at programming,’ Dixon says. ‘Particularly health-oriented children’s programs.’
While cable execs were keeping tight-lipped on their programming strategies and budgets for fear of encouraging an onslaught of pitches, here’s an overview of some of the most likely homes for lifestyle product on the U.S. cable spectrum.
Cable Cast (in order of appearance)
> The Outdoor Channel
> Discovery/ TLC
> The Golf Channel
> Gay Entertainment Television
> The Food Network
> Fit TV
> Home and Garden Television
> The Hobbycraft Network
> Outdoor Life Network
The Outdoor Channel
Getting a program on The Outdoor Channel is relatively simple – as long as you’re willing to pay.
As of last January, the Temecula, California-based specialty service has been charging producers and distributors up to US$1,500 per half-hour. In exchange, the producer gets up to six minutes of commercial time.
Shannon Pagett, director of programming, explains The Outdoor Channel simply does not have the budget to pay license fees. Launched in 1993, the channel used to operate on a barter system, sharing commercial time with the producers of its shows.
For US$1,500, the producer gets three runs on The Outdoor Channel, which reaches about a million cable subscribers, as well as receiving all six minutes of commercial time. For US$500, the producer gets three minutes of time.
Pagett says selling airtime does not mean the channel has compromised its standards. The shows must still fit The Outdoor Channel’s format. Its schedule is made up primarily of shows about fishing, hunting, prospecting, boating and recreational travel. Right now Pagett is looking for children’s programming and an outdoor cooking show. Producers need only send a beta copy of their show for consideration.
Discovery/The Learning Channel
For some producers and distributors, landing a how-to or lifestyle program on either Discovery Channel or The Learning Channel is only a dream.
Producers attempting a pitch are likely going to strike out unless they are prepared to accept a coproduction deal with the broadcaster. Chuck Gingold, senior vp and general manager of daytime programming at Discovery Channel (launched in 1985) and TLC (launched in 1991) U.S., is aware that a lack of back-end means most producers have little to gain but exposure.
‘I love to coproduce, because for me it means the potential for larger budgets,’ admits Gingold, ‘but unless there’s a lot of money to be made in home video, there isn’t much in it for the coproduction partner.’
Discovery/TLC is adamant about maintaining ownership of its programs and strives to find programming that can, in essence, build its own brands. Gingold also figures he’s limited in what he can offer producers since most of the slots on his schedule are hours, twice the length of most how-to shows.
‘That doesn’t open up the opportunities that I’m sure a lot of producers would like to think they could take advantage of,’ he says. What kind of pitch is Gingold most likely to respond to right now? ‘The thing I’d like to see us get involved in more is gardening shows,’ he says. ‘It’s difficult to deal with because of seasonality.’
But don’t put a rush on that gardening pitch just yet. ‘Until we’re able to be a little more timely and topical, it’s not something we’re going to be able to deal with,’ Gingold adds.
Getting a show on the Golf Channel is harder than getting a hole-in-one, since the Orlando-based service produces about 95% of its informational programming in-house.
Peter Gordon, senior director of programming, says the Golf Channel was forced to create its own shows since there wasn’t much related programming of good quality out on the market when the channel was born in 1995. ‘I thought it would be easy to program,’ recalls Gordon, ‘but it wasn’t there.’ He says most how-to golf programs were old or not of broadcast quality.
Like Discovery, the Golf Channel also prefers to own its programs so it can cash in on licensing them to other markets, including its own channels in Canada and Asia. But, Gordon says, in the future he may move towards more acquisitions or commissions, as in-house production resources become maxed out.
Producers with great ideas can request a submission package from the channel, and Gordon hints that producers pitching how-to shows are going to get stuck in a sandtrap. ‘I expect we will continue to evolve and move in the news and information direction,’ he says.
Gay Entertainment Television
One of the newest specialty services in the U.S., New York-based Gay Entertainment Television is open to pitches from producers and distributors, according to Marvin Schwan, president and ceo. GET, launching on 65 cable systems in September, plans to acquire just two hours of programming a week in its inaugural year.
Pitching how-to and lifestyle concepts may prove to be fruitless, though, since Schwan says he’s focusing on picking up movies and documentaries. He’s open to looking at other kinds of programming, as long as it has gay themes or sensibilities.
‘We’re going to see what’s out there,’ he explains, adding get is willing to buy from outside the U.S. Schwan says there is some development money in the bank which he’d be willing to invest in shows depending on their stage of development.
In its first year, GET will only program a six-hour weekly schedule. In addition to the two hours of acquired shows, GET will program two-and-a-half hours a week of original shows and air one-and-a-half hours of repeats. Schwan says he expects the channel to have a full 24-hour schedule by year two or three.
The Food Network
The New York-based Food Network produces over 95% of its programming. Currently acquired shows include classic episodes of Julia Childs, from WGBH, and the British hit Two Fat Ladies, produced by the BBC.
Just how much new programming the Food Network may acquire in the future depends on who’s speaking. A staffer in the programming department says the channel has acquired a Japanese show called Iron Chefs from Fuji Television Network in Tokyo, which will air with subtitles, and is moving towards a schedule heavier in acquisitions.
But Food publicist Kelli Stich says that’s not necessarily true, adding she is also not able to confirm that the channel has picked up the Japanese show. (Another publicist, Stephanie Sharon, said Iron Chefs is pending.) Programming vp Eileen Opatut was not available for comment.
Stich says the net produced more of its own half-hour series last year than ever before. But that doesn’t mean it won’t look at new shows from outside producers and distributors. ‘We’re always interested in acquiring high-quality interesting programs and will continue to pursue them,’ he says.
But a programming insider suggests producers should not focus on cooking shows. Pitches for programs about food that are entertainment-driven or historical in nature are more likely to get the channel’s attention.
A full three-quarters of everything Virginia Beach-based Fit TV airs is the how-to and lifestyle genre, but the specialty creates all its own programming. Fit was recently acquired by Denver, Colorado-based Fox Sports, leading to some speculation that the channel may start acquiring or commissioning more from outside.
Former vp and general manager Bob Hammer, one of the founders of Fit TV, says the decision to be completely original stems from its relationship with co-creator Jake Steinfeld, who had a history of producing infomercials and programs for espn.
‘Ownership was a real plus,’ explains Hammer.
Lifetime, in New York, which is dedicated to providing programming of particular interest to women, has ditched most of its how-to and lifestyle shows in favor of more movies and specials. Publicist MacLean Guthrie says Lifetime’s viewers simply didn’t want to see lifestyle programming. ‘We just stay in tune with what our viewers want,’ she says.
Among the programs Lifetime dumped are the syndicated Martha Stewart Living from CBS Productions, Handmade By Design, The Main Ingredient With Bobby Flay, and Our Home (Hearst Entertainment). It has kept two exercise programs, Everyday Workout (Ironstar Communications of Toronto) and Denise Austin’s Daily Workout (Denise Austin Productions).
Filling the gap in lifestyle programming is a new magazine-style show called New Attitudes, an original Lifetime production that airs five nights a week.
Guthrie says although the channel is producing and coproducing more shows, it remains open to pitches from all over the world. ‘The focus must be on women or topics of interest to women,’ she adds.
Lifetime commissioned more than 60 hour-long docs about women for its Intimate Portraits strip last year, and Guthrie says this is the type of programming producers and distributors should focus on pitching.
‘We have it pretty well covered,’ is the familiar refrain that Lou Occhicone, supervisor of program acquisitions at Speedvision, uses when asked about the kinds of shows he’s seeking to stack his schedule.
The Stamford, Connecticut-based service has several how-to shows on its schedule, including the Back to School programs (motorcycle instruction with Freddy Spencer and driving with Richard Petty) from Lingner Group of Indianapolis, Indiana. It also has the highest ratio of acquired to original programming, picking up about half its programs from outside sources. Occhicone figures this ratio will continue for the forseeable future.
‘As a start-up channel [launched in 1996] we need to try to meet the demands of our viewers as well as stay within our budget,’ he explains.
Occhicone says most of the pitches he received this year were marine- and automotive-themed. Producers should provide detailed descriptions of a concept, a breakdown of each episode and some samples of their previous work. And the shows can come from anywhere.
‘We go anywhere we have to to get the best programming,’ adds Occhicone.
Home and Garden Television
One of the biggest homes for how-to programming is Home and Garden Television of Knoxville, Tennessee. The specialty channel now reaches viewers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
According to the senior vp of programming, Burton Jablin, the entire primetime schedule is made up of commissions. ‘The rationale is to have producers all over the country working on programs,’ explains Jablin. ‘We want to make sure we have a broad national appeal.’
There are a handful of acquisitions in the daytime schedule, including pbs strips like Victory Gardens, This Old House Classics and New Yankee Workshop. Jablin says the channel also occasionally picks up shows from local markets and gives them national exposure, such as House Doctor which it found at KGO in San Francisco.
That HGTV has, from its beginnings, commissioned at least 80% of what it airs, means Jablin is constantly getting pitches from producers wanting a piece of the action. ‘There’s never been a national venue for this kind of programming before,’ he explains. ‘Now that we’ve got a lot of shows, it’s harder to get a show on HGTV.’
Jablin says a commissioned half-hour can fetch as much as US$30,000, though most make less than US$10,000 per episode, and US$50,000 is the high end for one hour. License fees for acquisitions are ‘considerably less.’
HGTV has established strict rules for producers and distributors. Number one, unsolicited pitches are only considered if they come from producers with national or major market credits. All submissions must include completion of a legal release form, as well as budgets and detailed descriptions of each episode.
‘We were getting a lot of people coming in with pieces of paper with one-sentence descriptions,’ recalls Jablin, adding his small programming staff is designed to supervise productions, not process submissions. ‘It’s hard for producers to know what we’re looking for,’ says Jablin. ‘It’s hard for us to explain.’
The future holds some promise though, as HGTV is poised to launch the Do-It-Yourself network on the digital tier sometime this year. Jablin says it’s too early to know what kind of commissions or acquisitions diy will be offering, but he expects most of the schedule will be filled with shows from HGTV’s extensive library.
What better place for how-to programming than a channel with the word `hobby’ in its name? San Diego-based Hobbycraft Communications is putting together its schedule in preparation for a fall launch on cable systems across the U.S.
Executive vp Steve Matela says, in its early stages, Hobbycraft Network will acquire most of its shows on a license-fee or barter arrangement. ‘Some producers have heard of us and have come to us trying to get their shows on the air,’ says Matela.
He’s looking for programs about any kind of hobby – from beer-making to model railroading – and crafts, ranging from needlework to painting. So far, Matela is pleased with the mix of shows he’s got lined up, but he admits ‘there will be hobbies and things that people are interested in that we’ll be missing.’
Hobbycraft hopes to get into coproduction and in-house programming later in its first year.
Outdoor Life Network
Outdoor Life Network, based in Stamford, Connecticut acquires the majority of its schedule, offering producers either license fees or barter deals. Director of program planning Jeff Goldberg says only about 40% of his schedule is original commissioned product, but that figure will likely increase in the future.
‘As we go, we continue to build up more of our original programs,’ explains Goldberg. ‘That’s always been the plan. It builds equity and we can control the shows – they become our shows.’ He notes it makes economic sense to fill daytime with inexpensive acquired fare, and focus on creating original shows for primetime.
Launched in 1995, the specialty channel has no obvious gaps in its programming, says Goldberg, but producers and distributors are welcome to pitch their ideas. ‘We’re always looking for good programming,’ he says.