By Randee Dawn
Lifestyle programming has come a long way since the days when it was defined by Julia Child chortling instructions over a beef bourguignon on PBS. Lifestyle’s leader, Scripps Networks Interactive, pulled in $1.7 billion in ad revenues last year from its 24/7 lifestyle channels, and has systematically built a complementary digital presence with its ULIVE lifestyle video site.
The combination of these numbers and evolving cross-platform explorations have attracted the attention of channels like Bravo, National Geographic, Destination America and A+E’s July-launched FYI. But the twist is in the interpretation, as these and other cable networks put their own stamps on the genre to get a slice of the revenue pie. Robert Friedman, CEO of Bungalow Horizon Media calls what’s going on now in networks and channel groups a “land grab … for viewers and to build brands.”
Emmy nominations and awards may have something to do with the uptick (Bravo’s Top Chef has two Emmys and was nominated again this year; Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives just received its second Emmy nod), but it’s more than critical success that’s driving the category. Instead, what’s appealing to executives now is that lifestyle’s hyper-targeted, loyal audience often watches programming live, and it’s incredibly advertiser-friendly. Brands recognize that and therefore want to step up their engagement in as many innovative ways as possible.
Says Scripps EVP Ad Sales Jon Steinlauf, “For years, we integrated ad content in short format programming, but lately we’ve seen more demand for in-show integration.” Working a product into a show is not precisely news in lifestyle programming, but the sophistication with which it is now being deployed is.”
“It’s about hitting a targeted audience,” says Dr. Naeemah Clark, associate professor at Elon University’s School of Communications. “Butterball or Behr Paint wants to hit an audience that’s inspired by the surrounding programming. Scripps does a lot of research and knows the ages, incomes and some psychographics about audiences for (shows like) House Hunters or Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”
Et voila: HGTV’s Fixer Upper series has shoppers making choices in sponsor ACE Hardware’s aisles; Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games uses grocery stores as backdrops and also works name brands like Eggo Waffles and Kikkoman into recipes.
“Consumer brands don’t want to rely solely on 30-second commercials,” says Friedman. “Audiences now expect brands to be involved in content. So the question is, can you incorporate the brand in such a way that it feels like the DNA of the show”
Destination America is diving head first into providing an answer. Discovery Network’s 2-year-old rebrand of one of its channels targets heartland viewers a strategy that seems to be working, as the network reports 2+ years of monthly consecutive growth in the 25-54 demo. The network showcases official BBQ Pitmasters sponsor Kingsford Charcoal into the show, something general manager Marc Etkind sees as a good match: “You think of barbecue, you think of charcoal,” he says. “It’s such a natural fit.”
Another example is A+E’s launch of FYI this month, (“For your inspiration, for your imagination, or for your innovation” says the site), a full-time lifestyle network (once known as Bio) aimed at grabbing a niche demographic. “There was a market there for the more millennial, urban, hip audience,” says Friedman about FYI. “That’s where they’ve gone.”
National Geographic has also made some initial forays into lifestyle programming with outdoorsy-themed shows such as Building Wild, which launched last year. Plans for Cabin Fever and Eric Greenspan is Hungry (an LA chef searches for the quintessential American meat dish) are in the works. But, says EVP programming and strategy Heather Moran, it must be on-brand. “We can provide unique opportunities, but it has to be organic to our storytelling,” she notes.
Even as other channels embrace lifestyle, they are conscious of finding ways to differentiate themselves. Destination America’s Etkind says he doesn’t want it to be about a how-to scenario. “I’m not sure all lifestyle programming is inherently instructional,” he says. “If you ask some other networks doing these shows, they’d consider them entertainment networks.”
Indeed, Bravo/Oxygen EVP of program strategy Jerry Leo considers his network more about lifestyle than pop culture. To that end, Bravo has built out two key franchises: Top Chef and Million Dollar Listing with more versions (i.e., Top Chef Duels and Listing series based in different cities). “We’re in expansion mode in this space,” he adds, preferring to have “strong personalities as central protagonists” in Bravo’s lifestyle choices.
The digital play is critical to category success. In June 2013, Scripps launched ULIVE, an online portal that features both full episodes and short how-to premium content videos. Scripps says ulive.com
has had more than 30M video plays since launch; it’s also linked to the ULIVE Lifestyle Network (ULN), which distributes video content across several lifestyle publishers. ULN has had more than 880 million video plays since October 2012.
In contrast, while PBS has several long running lifestyle series - such as This Old House - and a vibrant online portal for videos (plus a connection with distribution service Create TV), there’s no serious expansion planned in programming, online and off.
“We’re a variety service, and always have been,” says chief programming officer Beth Hoppe. “PBS invented the genre, and we’re trying to do the best quality in the field and break new ground, but we don’t run six channels.”
Destination America, meanwhile, is not quite ready to brand its online presence too heavily. “As a new network, we’re still concentrating on the linear experience,” says Etkind.
So what is Scripps looking forward to in its own future Think international. “We’ve become much more aggressive in the international space in the past two years, and we have a vast library of content that we own the copyrights to,” said Steinlauf.
The net is also amping up its personality-driven content. Kathleen Finch, President of HGTV, DIY Network, and Great American Country, is planning shows that focus on family businesses, and possibly a greater emphasis on celebrities (the net is already working with Vanilla Ice, William Shatner, Darryl Hall, and Jennie Garth) who also have home renovations, flip houses and travel). “Getting into the very private lives of those public figures makes for fun and compelling programming,” she says. “That’s a nut we didn’t think we could crack.”
Regardless of manifestation, the lifestyle category is here to stay, says NatGeo’s Moran. “It doesn’t feel like a fad. Everybody eats, everybody wants a home, everybody has leisure activities,” she says. “It has a resonance that’s not going away any time soon. It really is a place with limitless possibilities.”