Lunch at Michael's with Scripps Networks' Kathleen Finch

By Ed Martin Lunch at Michael's Archives

Given her background, it’s not at all surprising that Scripps Networks Interactive Chief Programming, Content and Brand Officer Kathleen Finch oversees HGTV and Food Network (along with DIY, Cooking Channel, GAC and Travel Channel). As a child growing up in New York City she watched and learned as her parents bought and flipped one New York City brownstone after another – long before flipping was a thing. Also, her father had worked his way through graduate school as a chef, a job her brother would later have in Paris. And then there was the time when, as a young broadcast journalist working at CBS, Finch spent two weeks in Cuba with Martha Stewart!

Now in her ninth year at Scripps, Finch and her husband, Golf Digest contributing editor Peter Finch, divide their time between Knoxville, Tenn., where the company is headquartered, and Manhattan, where Food Network and Cooking Channel are based. “I live about three blocks away from my high school,” Finch told Jack Myers and me over lunch at Michael’s restaurant one balmy December day. “It’s so funny to watch the kids walk by in their t-shirts and all the rest. It’s nice to be back in the neighborhood.”

Talk of her childhood immediately turns to her parents’ very forward-thinking hobby at the time; something that would later fuel dozens of Scripps shows under Finch’s purview, if only by coincidence. “My parents would buy entire brownstones and we would live in a floor while they renovated others,” she recalled. “We would move around and then they would sell them. At the time, in the 70s, gentrification was really kind of going crazy in New York.”

Also of interest: Finch’s parents would not allow her or her brother to watch television. “They are serious intellectuals, and they thought television was just a waste of time. So I think that every day when I’m going to work I am paying them back for all the times they told me never to watch the ‘boob tube,’” she laughed.

As fond as Finch may be of New York City, she has come to feel right at home in Knoxville, where HGTV, DIY and GAC are based, and where the Travel Channel will relocate in 2016 from its longtime headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Knoxville, she said, “is a fun city to move to,” and she is confident that the Travel Channel staff will find it exciting. “It’s right in the Great Smoky Mountains, an area of incredible natural beauty. For a media company it’s very unusual.”

And for a family, Finch continued, Knoxville is “amazing.” Nine years ago, when her family made the move “we traded our house in Connecticut for a house in Knoxville that was probably a third of the price. My kids went to a really fabulous, small progressive private school there. [Her oldest is now a teacher in Philadelphia, her middle child is in New York working in the documentary film business and her youngest is now a sophomore at Berkeley.]

“The location is breathtakingly beautiful,” she added. “When I am lying in my bed in Knoxville I can look out the window and see the Smoky Mountains. It is a magical place. It’s not a media community, so yes, sometimes it’s a little challenging. But I’m convinced that Scripps would not be nearly as successful as it is if it were not in Knoxville.”

The benefit of being located there, Finch said, is that “we’re making brands to appeal to all of America. If we were in New York or LA we would be making very different kinds of networks that would not have the power that they do.” It’s all about the support of Middle America, she noted.

When Jack mentioned that all three of his kids love to cook and happily credit Food Network for their enthusiasm for cooking and their skills in the kitchen, Finch replied that she hears similar stories all the time and offered an explanation. “All of us working moms weren’t necessarily at home teaching our kids how to cook,” she said. “My daughters are the same as your children, they love to cook, but it wasn’t because I taught them. I think a lot of young people like to watch process. They like to watch things being made. So we kind of lure them in.

“What’s really amazing now at Food Network is our young viewers have been growing at a faster rate than our adults 25-54 because of shows like ‘Chopped Jr.’ and others,” Finch continued. “We’re now doing kids’ versions of many of our regular shows. Millennials are a huge focus for us on all of our networks. We have all their moms watching so now we’re bringing the kids in. We were the first food brand on Snapchat. It’s done a lot to raise our profile among young people.”

Finch explained that doubling down on co-viewing opportunities – that is, shows that appeal to the whole family – has become a priority at Scripps. “We have many new series that we’re launching in 2016 that involve families and children,” she said. “Those have proven to be ratings bonanzas.”

One of those new shows will be an off-shoot of “Food Network Star” titled “Food Network Star Kids Edition.” Finch said it could turn out to be a digital show “because as we all know with children the telephone is a television. The challenge with working with children is we have to shoot it around school vacations. Obviously the rules are very different with kids. You can’t work them through a 15 hour day. Plus there are knives and flames and all of that.” YouTube stars will be featured as guest judges on the show.

After graduating from Stanford, where she majored in English Literature, Finch’s first job was working for a small production company that was producing videos for Apple Computer. “It was early enough that Steve Jobs would sit in meetings with us," she recalled. "We made videos that were about the benefits of having a personal computer in your home. I’m in some of them. I play the college student whose studying was made easier by having a home computer.”

From there it was on to CBS News. “I’m a former journalist,” she said. “That’s really what I thought I always wanted to do.” At CBS she would meet her first mentor – the late “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney, who encouraged Finch to pursue her writing and with whom she eventually carpooled to and from Connecticut – and Eric Ober, who was her boss at CBS and later left to run Food Network.

She also got to know Martha Stewart, who was working there as a lifestyle consultant and was central to Finch’s “favorite experience” at the network. In 1998, when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, CBS decided to send Stewart there to do lifestyle reporting and Finch was assigned to accompany her. Because the Pope was there, so were all the news superstars of the moment, including Dan Rather and the late Peter Jennings. Right at that time, however, news broke of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, and suddenly all of the news people left. But Finch was told to remain in Cuba with Stewart and continue with their reporting.

Two weeks later Finch returned home from the trip late one Saturday night and turned on “Saturday Night Live,” only to see a sketch about Martha Stewart reporting from Cuba about the Lewinsky story. “It was fabulous and horrible all at once,” she laughed. “And it was on the front page of the Washington Post!”

Stewart, Finch added, is “one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. I loved working with her.”

Returning to talk of the present, Finch noted that ad revenues at Scripps are “pretty amazing.” One reason, she said, is that the networks she oversees “are very deliberately speaking to the passions of people who love home, food and travel. So if you’re an endemic advertiser we serve those people up on a platter. Our viewers are very focused.”

Further, Finch noted that “over 95 percent of the time our viewers are watching us live. Only sports and news have numbers like that. We don’t think about [individual] shows that we want people to come and watch. We think about a 24/7 information delivery system. We speak to this really passionate core viewer. Every single time she – I like to use the word she – turns one of our networks on she knows what she’s going to get. We don’t ever disappoint her.”

Over 60 percent of the audience for HGTV and Food Network is female. Finch said it changes by show. “We don’t just program to women," she explained. "Food and home decorating are obviously of interest to women, so naturally we attract more women, but we absolutely have a dual programming approach. The reality is if we make it too girly the men won’t come. So we try to be very careful to make it programming for everybody.”

With so much of their audience watching live, daily scheduling still matters at HGTV and Food Network, making them something of an anomaly in the business these days. For example, after stripping at 10 and 10:30 p.m. a couple of years ago the hugely popular “House Hunters” and “House Hunters International” -- making for the equivalent, Finch said, of a “relaxing end of the day cocktail” -- HGTV’s 11 o’clock time slot has become one of the most valuable on the network. “We’ve launched a lot of series at 11 because the flow from ‘House Hunters’ is so big,” Finch noted. “It’s a great way to introduce a new series without having to promote it.” (The outsize success of those two shows is no surprise. For many they are the only two shows on TV that matter.)

Between “House Hunters” and “House Hunters International” and such spin-offs as “Island Hunters” and “Tiny House Hunters” the combined annual episode order for these shows is approximately 400, or more than one per day each year. “The orders are so huge the production community is salivating,” Finch said with a smile.

Asked about mentors (other than Andy Rooney) Finch immediately replied, “The mentor I adore like no other is Judy Girard. She gave me my start in cable. I never would have made the switch to cable had it not been for her urging and encouragement. She mentored me so wonderfully and I have watched her do that over and over with others. When I started at Food Network she knew I didn’t know very much about long-form cable programming, negotiating with agents, all those things that as a journalist I hadn’t really done. She used to invite me into her office and put her phone on speaker so I could just sit and listen, and it was so incredibly valuable to see how she managed, how she worked, keeping everybody happy while at the same time making sure she got what she needed to get. She was the best mentor anybody could ever have.

“I have the same now with my current boss [Scripps Networks Interactive COO] Burton Jablin,” she continued. “He hands projects to people to let them test themselves. He’s always there if you need him, but he encourages people to go outside of what they are comfortable doing. It’s a great way to learn.”

Finch gives back as often as she can. “I really love taking an interest in my own team,” she said. “Allison Page, the Senior Vice President and GM of HGTV, DIY and GAC, is the first person that I hired when I got to the Food Network. She and I had worked together at CBS. I had mentored her, and I just think she’s a superstar. Courtney White, who was just announced as the new head of programming for Travel Channel, is another really smart person that I love to mentor and spend time with. Maybe it’s the mom in me, but I love sort of reaching out and working closely.” 

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