How Food Network and HGTV Lean on Talent as Service TV Viewership Surges

Courtesy of Subject
Discovery's Kathleen Finch, working from home

Discovery's lifestyle brands boss Kathleen Finch talks about arming talent with cameras, quarantine programming blocks and, yes, that massive Cosmopolitan that Ina Garten made on Instagram.

The widespread cloistering of most Americans, staying at home to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, is having a noticeable impact on food TV programming — both in how it's consumed (quite a bit) and how it's still being made while sticking within the constraints of social distancing. 

Food Network's recent quarantined-themed weekend, filled with self-filmed segments from network talent, marked the Discovery-owned network's highest-rated Saturday-Sunday combo in over eight years. A total 16.5 million viewers tuned into programming across the weekend, trailing only the news networks in all of cable — with highlights like Joanna Gaines' family-filmed cooking special topping 2.8 million viewers during its Sunday premiere and breakout Girl Meets Farm delivering its highest-rated episode in series history.

Finding one of her many networks in the sweet spot between an audience with more time to watch TV and a product that's actually helpful to the millions of Americans cooking at home more than ever, Discovery chief lifestyle brands officer Kathleen Finch spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the evolving strategy at Food Network to serve an audience that's looking for answers. By arming talent (also stuck at home) with the means to self-film, Food, HGTV and even TLC are augmenting existing programming and, in some cases, packaging completely new episodes when all other production has stopped — moves that could outlast COVID-19. "This is as intimate as it gets," says Finch. "I think we’re going to see a change in how content is created in this genre.

A lot of lifestyles programming has become service programming since people began staying at home.

I think the entire team feels like this is an obligation. We know that we’re providing a service now that’s a little bit different than just entertaining people. We are comforting and distracting people — but, at the same time, America is cooking three meals a day, seven days a week, which they’ve probably never done before.

How are you communicating your awareness of that with viewers? 

We started with our talent. Unlike scripted television, we have talent that fans feel like they know personally. So the first thing we did was turn around a ton of content just using the talent on their cellphones. It’s Jonathan Scott and his girlfriend, Zooey Deschanel. It’s the family from Little People Big World. It’s all of our talent. And certainly you’ve seen Food Network talent on every social platform.

How does that translate from social to linear? 

Two or three weeks in, we’ve been able to morph it into some more sophisticated things. For the finale of Guy Fieri’s Tournament of Champions, we sent a little mini-studio to Guy’s house in Northern California. Guy and his oldest son, Hunter, sat on the couch together and watched a marathon of the episodes and commented on them — which we broadcasted. It was sort of like Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Talent seems to have a lot of power in all of this.

It's helped us be able to turn things like that around, leaning on the talent and the direct communication they already have with fans. It's basically “Celebrities, they’re just like us.” Guy in his kitchen saying, "Hey, I’m here, too." Ina Garten is just going through her pantry and telling people to text her what they've got in theirs for meal suggestions.

Speaking of Ina Garten, she was really the toast of Instagram last week with her Cosmopolitan recipe.

Wasn’t that funny? If you’ve ever met Ina, you know she is one of the funniest people ever. She just lets her hair down. But that image, the size of the glass and smirk to the camera is just brilliant. She is so brilliant.

Did you get a heads up she’d be doing that?

No, though I did text her that morning to let her know I better be the first invitation as soon as this thing breaks. 

How obvious has the ratings gain been?

The uptick is very, very significant. I would say the whole trend is that people are watching a lot of our networks, especially in daytime. Daytime numbers have, in some cases, doubled — often as high as our primetime numbers. We’re being aggressive and strategic about marathons. We’re picking our most popular primetime shows, especially ones that are very talent-forward, and stacking all-day marathons. The talent sits along on their couches, having live Twitter parties and doing Facebook Lives. 

What about Food Network, specifically? 

Everyone is at home cooking. Where are you going to go for information? You’re going to go to the Food Network. The talent in that community is doing a service. They really want to help people.

What have your discussions been about making more socially distant programming?

Well, obviously, safety first. So we’re not doing anything or asking anybody to do anything that they shouldn’t be doing. But we are sending out live packs to our talent who want them, which basically gives them a mobile, in-home production studio. It’s a high-quality camera, a Go-Pro, and a strong uplink so they can send us the material. We just announced a 90-Day Fiancé: Self-Quarantined [on TLC]. Those couples now have high-quality cameras.

There’s so much voyeurism to a lot of this, seeing how people really live.

We can see inside their homes. Everyone is fascinated by questions like, “What do Food Network talent’s real kitchens look like?” and “Where do the Property Brothers really live?” The chance to share some of that on television, on social, is great. We’re taking some existing content and then wrapping it in new interstitial moments using home video cameras. We’ve been able to do that really fast.

What about the runway for you to resume traditional production?

Obviously we’re keeping any preproduction going that we can, anything that involves work over the phone, so we’re really ready to pull the trigger. The question is when is that date? [On HGTV], we have a few houses that are midway under construction. So we are ready to go as soon as we have the all-clear. For now, what we’re doing is self-shot content where it makes sense.

Joanna Gaines did a semi-self-shot special for Food this weekend. 

Yes, some of the content in her special came from Instagram. Her kids shot it. It’s fabulous. We love that sort of thing. We also did a big experiment on Food Network with a show called The Kitchen — which is normally five chefs in the studio. Well, we can’t get them together, so every one of the five talent shot their own segment in their own kitchen. We’ve all grown used to watching YouTube and shooting our own home videos on cellphones. I think people’s tastes are a little bit different than we sometimes assume. Everything doesn’t have to be these glossy Hollywood productions to make people love it. This is as intimate as it gets, so I think we’re going to see a change in how content is created in this genre.

It seems like the crumbling of these kinds of walls may have an impact well beyond this genre.

I’ve loved seeing a lot of famous actresses in their kitchens, in their pajamas, their hair all a mess. These are things that they would not have posted three or four months ago. Everybody’s getting a lot more real, and I think that’s going to make a big change in media.

How do you think home improvement programming is going to change after everyone has spent so much time in their homes?

I don’t know if you can hear this, but there are three different people in my neighborhood working right now —  landscaping, building fences, cleaning shutters. There is an explosion in do-it-yourself projects. We have heard from a lot of the advertisers on HGTV, our home improvement stores, that they can’t keep paint or tools on the shelves. Everybody is looking around their house, finding things that they want to change.

Any pre-pandemic programming you’re excited to launch this month?  

Celebrity IOU on HGTV. We’ve been talking about how everybody's defenses are down, how they're getting more real and thinking about what really matters. That’s what these celebrities do in this show. The silver lining of all this, to me, is that I think we'll a see a major return to family-friendly entertainment choices. And this show is a great example. In the first episode, we have Brad Pitt — all over it, swinging a hammer and being just the most charming guy.

When you first started working with HGTV, did you ever anticipate that you’d book Brad Pitt?

The show hasn’t even aired, and we’ve already got new celebrities calling us to be on it. I always hear about celebrities who love to watch our networks — but, as you can imagine, it’s sometimes a little challenging to get them to be on the network. So, no, I never would have imagined that we’d get Brad Pitt.