Home-grown Scripps Networks Interactive makes its mark
The big, expensive research piece examining the demand for a home improvement network surely would impress the E.W. Scripps Company board of directors and help launch Home and Garden Television, Ken Lowe and Frank Gardner thought.
The board had agreed to spend $25 million on the launch of HGTV, but wanted to see some research on the proposal. So, Lowe and Gardner hired a firm for $75,000 to do a study.
“And the piece came back and said, ‘this is the worst idea ever, Home and Garden Television is the worst name ever, and it’s going to be a dismal failure,’ ” Lowe said. “So, I said, ‘Frank, this is awful, what are we going to do with it?’ ”
Gardner told him the answer was simple.
He tossed the paper in a trash can.
“He said, 'This is never going to see the light of day.’ " Lowe said.
It turned out not to matter. Home and Garden Television was launched Dec. 30, 1994, and Lowe said the best estimate is that it reached about 6 million households.
"It was really hard in those days to understand who was watching," he said. "Nielsen didn’t start rating cable networks until you got to at least 30 million households."
Today, HGTV is part of Scripps Networks Interactive, a Knoxville-based producer of lifestyle content for television and other platforms. Scripps Networks Interactive reaches an estimated 190 million consumers per month in 170 countries and is valued as an $8 billion company. In February, it reported a record $2.4 billion in advertising revenues for the 2016 fiscal year, topping $2 billion for the first time.
While the company started with HGTV and about 35 employees, it now has about 3,000 employees worldwide, with about 1,000 of those in Knoxville. Besides HGTV, Scripps Networks operates DIY Network, Food Network, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel and Great American Country. It also is establishing network operations in Poland, Asia and elsewhere around the globe.
Lowe said that he could not have predicted a lifestyle-oriented cable network would have taken off like it did. And he still hears from people who are surprised that Scripps Networks grew up in Knoxville and remains here.
In the late 1980s, Lowe was in charge of programming, promotion and marketing for Scripps Howard Broadcasting's nine network-affiliated TV stations.
“I was overseeing the television group at the time. And I was really frustrated at a lot of the programming we had on our television stations," he said.
In those days, Morton Downey Jr., Geraldo Rivera, Jerry Springer and others were hosting loud, confrontational, in-your-face shows.
"All of a sudden, it was all these really vile, how-obnoxious-can-you-get? shows," Lowe said. "And I had this idea for HGTV for a long time. I thought, there has got to be an audience out there, especially women, who would prefer something better than this."
Lowe started working on a presentation for what would become HGTV. Then, in 1993, Gardner returned to E. W. Scripps as executive vice president of Scripps Howard Broadcasting. He soon became an advocate for the HGTV idea.
Their presentation to the Scripps board was successful, and the two executives set out to try to establish a cable network. They had heard about a deal to purchase West Knoxville-based Cinetel Productions that fell through, so they approached Cinetel owner Ross Bagwell.
“Ross was able to do what I thought was very high quality programming on a cost-efficient basis here in Knoxville,” Lowe said. “Cinetel was like a little Hollywood back lot. Long story short, we decided to buy Cinetel and make it the home base, if you will, of HGTV."
The concept for HGTV and the shows that would come later is nearly the opposite of the edgy, confrontational programs that Lowe disliked.
“I don’t know if a lot of people realize, but a lot of what drives our viewing and our content are relationships," Lowe said. "By that I mean husband, wife, partners, in our case the Property Brothers. So, you are watching a show but you are also watching a family or you are watching two brothers, or house hunters where a couple is deciding how they can come together on what they want for a house."
Lowe said Knoxville fit the mold for a place to base the company.
"I was particularly interested in not putting it in New York or Los Angeles," he said. "I knew initially that this was a network that was going to be aimed at middle America, and I really felt it was important that we be in touch with middle America."
It wasn't that New York or Los Angeles were bad, he said.
"I just knew initially that we were going to be trying to get into markets like Kansas City or Charlotte, N.C., or Austin, Texas," he said.
Lowe said the success of the company's cable networks has been a vindication of its family-friendly concept, and he recently received affirmation of that.
“I thought somebody was pulling my leg, but I got a call from the Vatican and they said ‘We’d like you to come and speak at a seminar,’ ” he said.
The Vatican holds a yearly seminar. This one dealt with family values in media, and Lowe was among about 15 representatives of media companies, advertising firms and others invited to speak at the event. Lowe talked about how Scripps Networks has become a prime exporter of American lifestyle that highlights family values.
"It just underscores that quality content, that turns out to be very popular here in the United States and is gaining momentum around the globe, can be centered around family values and family viewing," Lowe said.
While Scripps Networks Interactive has enjoyed considerable success, Lowe said there are challenges ahead, such as transitioning from a company that primarily provides content on television to one that does it across many platforms.
Consumers are making increasing use of smartphones, tablets and social media, and Scripps programming needs to be able to go mobile when viewers are shopping for food or planning a home project.
To that end, the company plans to spend $30-$40 million in 2017 on various digital initiatives.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to continue to be on these big screens but also be on these mobile devices and we’ve got to figure out a way to make sure we are in sync with social media," Lowe said.
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Ed Marcum
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