Discovery's Kathleen Finch Reveals the Perks and Pains of Counter-Programming an Election Year

Rahoul Ghose
Kathleen Finch

"Rachel Maddow is going to take all of our upscale women [viewers]. She always does," the Discovery Lifestyle chief quipped Tuesday at Realscreen.

The 2020 presidential election isn't just a make-or-break moment for cable news. Wall-to-wall coverage presents a very specific opportunity for the rest of the cable landscape to offer a safe haven for viewers suffering from news fatigue.

Kathleen Finch, who programs cable’s most robust portfolio as Discovery’s chief lifestyle brands officer, has 11 networks of election-free lineups to tend to — TLC, HGTV, Food Network and ID among them.

“This is going to be a really interesting year for us,” Finch said during her Tuesday morning keynote at the Realscreen Summit in New Orleans. “But I think what's going to end up happening is that we'll prove ourselves again to be great default viewing. A lot of what brings people to our networks is the predictability, the resolutions. Even on [true-crime-focused] ID, it's not a happy story always, but there's a promise to the viewers that there will be a resolution, so a lot of viewers come to us when they've just had enough of bad news.”

The last presidential election, in 2016, proved to be a wild year for the cable news networks. Fox News pulled ahead of ESPN to be out-watched by every other network in cable, while both CNN and MSNBC earned massive surges. The latter, it turns out, gets an election edge on Discovery’s lifestyles networks at 9 o'clock on weeknights.

“The news organizations are going to suck up a lot of eyeballs,” said Finch, whose portfolio, on average, commands a 25 percent share of U.S. women viewers on any given night. “And then Rachel Maddow is going to take all of our upscale women [viewers]. She always does. They love her.”

Another potential counter-programming opportunity for Discovery may come courtesy of a potential writers strike that many in the industry fear could come in May if union negotiations with the studios don’t go well. The last time the WGA had an extended impasse with the studios, in 2007-08, unscripted programming and cable were the biggest beneficiaries when repeats blanketed the broadcast networks. (Funnily enough, 2008 was also a presidential election year.)

And while Finch didn’t confess to any plans to exploit the potential strike, she is keenly aware of the opportunities one could afford.

"We operate every single day just wanting to grab as many eyeballs as we do,” she said. “We have premieres on every single night. We don't have a lag time. We don't have repeats. One benefit of unscripted content over scripted content is that it's not as expensive to make. We can make 800 hours of original programming a year per network.”

Election or strike, Finch emphasized that — even in an era of cord-cutting and increased streaming competition — it’s the habitual viewers that are keeping so many of her networks from surrendering to the ratings decline seen across the cable landscape.

“That’s always going to be the upside for us, the people who just want a break,” she said. “Let me see a house get renovated and the owners end up happy.”