In the current fractured TV universe, many networks are desperately trying to track an audience that has drifted away from linear viewing and onto other platforms and that are more difficult to monetize.
But that’s not the case for Scripps Networks Interactive, home to HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, DIY Network, Cooking Channel and Great American Country. As the company heads into this year’s upfront, it is doubling down on its linear strategy and playing up the value of its home, food and travel programming, which are mostly watched live.
President of national ad sales and marketing Jon Steinlauf said that with 4,000 new episodes a year, “if you tune into one of our channels, the chances of seeing something that’s brand-new is pretty high.” And that gives Scripps viewers very little incentive to watch programming via DVR or on demand.
“A lot of advertisers are starting to think of sports, news and Scripps as the place to get high-quality audiences live. And that’s the whole goal for an advertiser now—you have to buy where you think they’ll be watching live,” Steinlauf said.
That’s why the theme of Scripps’ upfront presentation this year is “environment matters.” (The company will again be holding seven regional upfront presentations, starting March 14 in Atlanta and hitting New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago and Boston.)
“Audiences are engaged not just to the content, but to the advertising,” said Steinlauf. “We think one of the biggest issues that marketers face right now is ad avoidance” due to time shifting and SVOD outlets like Netflix.
To make its content more attractive to viewers and advertisers, the company doesn’t syndicate episodes of its shows to other channels and opted to no longer sell its content to SVOD outlets after its two-year deal with Netflix lapsed at the end of 2016. “We’ve walked away from the SVOD marketplace because we want to keep everything here, exclusive to us,” Steinlauf said. “We have really gone against the grain, and the live viewing is the reward.”
Last week, Scripps announced on its earnings call that its U.S. ad sales were up 10 percent in 2016, and the company now has a double-digit share of cable advertising. “We believe in the advertising model, and we believe in protecting the advertising model,” said Steinlauf. “Once you let an audience shift into any form of time-shifted viewing, the odds of them seeing your commercials are dramatically lower, which means you can’t monetize them.”
For viewers of Scripps networks like HGTV, Steinlauf said, “the content inside the breaks is just as relevant as the content inside the shows.”
Given that draw of live television among its viewers, Steinlauf said, “we’re using the strength of the live story to get more creative that has a sense of urgency.” Scripps has seen an increase in ads for theatrical releases, especially on Thursday nights, while restaurants, retailers, packaged-goods and wireless companies with sales or promotions “are looking at us more as being a quick, one-night reach when they need it.”
However, Scripps’ renewed emphasis on linear doesn’t mean the company is ignoring digital. Chief programming, content and brand officer Kathleen Finch said that all of Scripps’ high-profile series have companion digital series.
Steinlauf said, “We sell a lot of advertising platforms on digital, but our business is mostly television. And we think we’ve got to serve our advertisers as best we can.”
Scripps will be going into the upfront celebrating ratings growth for all six of its networks, which some have attributed to audiences looking for a refuge from incessant election and political coverage. “We were the only company that had ratings growth across the portfolio,” said Steinlauf. He debated using words like “comfort food” and “escapism” in upfront messaging as a nod to the new environment but ultimately “we don’t think it does us justice,” he said, given that its networks’ ratings had been increasing even prior to the election.
After airing a six-network crossover special last Halloween, Scripps is thinking of new ways to bring talent from its networks together and featuring all of its brands. This year, the company is mulling crossover short-form content with sponsors over the holidays featuring talent from all six networks that would appear on its linear, digital and social platforms.
“Because all of our content lends itself so well to how-to and demonstrations and before-and-afters, so many things that both can incorporate an advertiser and speak to the content that we do, we think there’s a good opportunity in short form,” said Finch.
As it touts the strength of all of its networks, Scripps said it’s confident it will continue to retain its entire portfolio, even as other media companies are dropping lesser-performing networks, as NBCUniversal recently did with Esquire Network and Cloo.
“We’re committed to all six,” Steinlauf said. “All six are successful, all growing, all good ad sales channels. It’s a great portfolio, and we have a very attractive value proposition for the distributors.”
Scripps’ upfront slate will include spinoffs and one-offs of its most popular programming, including a Property Brothers spinoff in which one of the brothers, Drew Scott, is getting married to his longtime girlfriend, Linda, and they’ll buy and renovate their first home.
Fixer Upper stars Chip and Joanna Gaines are opening a restaurant, which will be a one-off special—for now. “Who knows, it may spin off into something else,” said Finch.
HGTV will spin off its fantasy destination content—Mexican Life, Caribbean Life—on Sunday night, TV’s most upscale night. “That’s a night that just doesn’t seem to want to stop,” said Finch. Next up is Mediterranean Life, which follows Americans trying to buy vacation homes in the Mediterranean.
Travel, whose prime-time ratings were up 11 percent in 2016, will feature a spinoff of Expedition Unknown, called Expedition Unknown: Hunt for the Extraterrestrials.
And Food Network will be bringing back Iron Chef America, which debuted in 2005. Called Iron Chef Gauntlet, “it is a slightly new spin on one of the iconic series that helped put Food Network on the map many years ago,” said Finch. “It’s going to come back, and it’s going to come back big.” Hosted by Alton Brown, the series, which premieres on Easter Sunday, April 16, will feature returning chefs like Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto and Michael Symon.