By Meredith Berlin
Finding the best burger in America, traveling to the Himalayas, buying a beach house in Capri, cooking with candied watermelon rind, or planting a circular garden: known collectively as "lifestyle programming," this category is now the undisputed provenance of cable and broadcast networks. Alluring to both viewers and advertisers, there's only growth in store for this sector. In fact, it's gaining so much ground that there's a considered push to rebrand it as a new genre unto itself: "unscripted."
And why shouldn't broadcasters want more lifestyle shows They bring in a more upscale audience--HGTV says they have more female viewers than any other network who work, own homes and live in households earning more than $100,000 a year. In addition, these viewers are loyal and committed. Whether they come with notebook in hand to get tips about making over their dining room or are just engrossed in a show's host and characters, this is programming that sticks. Plus, the shows are significantly less expensive to produce than their scripted sisters, and advertisers have a built-in market, with the viewer already a potential buyer.
Today's shows are also well-produced, with faraway locations, tough competitions, sought-after experts and real people viewers can relate to. Kathleen Finch, GM of Scripps Networks Interactive's HGTV and DIY Network, explains, "Some people may think that lifestyle TV is going to be very instructional, very step by step. It's nothing like that. We deliver a lot of great information and inspiration; but we never stop and say, 'Now lean down and pick up the screwdriver.'"
Ratings back Finch up. Scripps is up 11% in first quarter revenue over last year, with $594 million. HGTV had its best May ever, helped in large measure by the May 30th premiere of Renovation Raiders, which snagged 2.4 million viewers.
The ad numbers are equally impressive. Jon Steinlauf, EVP Ad Sales for Scripps, rattles off the changes since he first came to Scripps nearly 14 years ago. "HGTV, Food, and DIY Network did about $400 million in ad sales then. Today it's about four times bigger," he says. "Then, advertisers liked what they saw but still wanted to experiment, maybe giving $200,000 to Food Networok out of an ad budget of $20 million."
One of the reasons is that Scripps shows offer sponsorship and inclusion in the shows, when it's appropriate. "Outback Steakhouse wanted an Australian theme for an episode of Chopped, so our baskets contained some ingredients that are popular in Australia... And one of the judges was a former executive chef at Outback. That was part of our commitment when they agreed to sponsor the show," Steinlauf says. But he adds, "Integrations need to be worthwhile. I want to make sure my clients get the best exposure."
David Melia, TLC's VP of Programming, would agree. "Last season on Next Great Baker, we did a partnership with Carrabba's [an Italian restaurant] that celebrated the tradition of Sunday Dinner, in which two teams were challenged to each make a cake, and the winner got a trip for two to Italy. It was perfect. And on My First Home, we ran a contest with Lumber Liquidators called 'My first Floors.' Those are two good examples of authentic, organic integrations."
While Scripps has entire networks devoted 24/7 to lifestyle, others are making plenty of forays into the category. Bravo, known for its cheekiness and Housewives franchise, is a big player in the genre, and it draws intense viewer attention, as well. The Atlanta version of the Housewives was the highest-rated show in Bravo's 2013-14 season, with a 1.47 rating. Other Bravo lifestyle entries include the highly viewed Interior Therapy with Jeff Lewis, Top Chef, and Million Dollar Listing.
Shari Levine, SVP of current production/original programming, says people come to Bravo because "our shows are fun, stylish, and good-looking. Our viewers are smart." The hosts on a Bravo show can be testy, but that's part of the fun of a Bravo program.
She notes, "We capture attention in a lot of different ways. Typically the people on our shows are doing what you want to be doing - living a lifestyle that people aspire to. There is a definite feeling to a Bravo show. You always know it when you see it."
And this category is particularly fertile. Nat Geo is getting into the act, with its first do-it-yourself series to come in early 2014, called Building Wild, in which wilderness zealots create retreats in America's last frontiers, with help from Paul DiMeo of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. "This show is a twist on the lifestyle genre that's unique to our brand," says Howard T. Owens, President, National Geographic Channels."It's a combination of the rugged outdoors and extreme adventure that National Geographic is legendary for, and the DIY ingenuity that people love." It's also a natural draw for a male audience. Adds TLC's Melia, "Our viewers love great characters, and that's the core of TLC. Shows like Four Houses and Cake Boss have an added level of relatability, authenticity, and takeaway."
Scripps has done so well with its food and shelter offerings that the powers-that-be have spun off two other networks—DIY Network, from HGTV and the Cooking Channel from the Food Network. They also have the Travel Channel--a network that not only focuses on vacations but on rugged adventures. Dangerous Grounds, for example, follows Todd Carmichael, a coffee business entrepreneur, who travels to some of the world's most perilous locations in search of the perfect bean.
The broadcast networks have realized that in addition to producing scripted dramas at a price of about $3 million an episode, it might help to have some programming that costs less and delivers well to the audience and advertiser. Just look at Fox's MasterChef, which earned a whopping 5.74 rating on its June 27th episode, winning the 18-49 category that same night. And then there's CBS's new series, The American Baking Competition, with Jeff Foxworthy. The show is already successful in Great Britain as Bake Off.
Gary Carr, SVP Executive Director National Broadcast at TargetCast, isn't surprised by the wealth of programming in the genre, and predicts that there's even more to come. "HGTV and Food Network are doing great. The demo is upscale and the ratings are growing. The CPMs are lower than the broadcast networks, but that means the prices for ads are better," says Carr, whose clients include Sunmaid Rasins, Pfizer, and Hotels.com, according to the TargetCast website.
Carr has also seen the overall change in cable channels. "Bravo used to be about culture. TLC was The Learning Channel. Then Bravo aired Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and everything changed for them." Advertisers learned that smart, well-off people like food and home, perhaps more than the arts. Kathleen Finch agrees: "Our viewers are passionate about their homes. It's the happiest place on the earth for them."
Lifestyle shows also offer opportunities not found elsewhere for advertisers. "Our typical viewer is 25-40. These are upscale, white-collar women who work and live in suburban homes they own," says Finch. While some advertisers might still be craving an 18 year old target viewer, Finch points out, "An 18 year-old isn't buying a new Lexus, taking a high-end vacation or a buying a whole new living room full of furniture."
More good news The audience for lifestyle programming is mostly female but is becoming increasingly male. DIY, for instance, has a 50/50 male/female audience in prime time, and 28% of the HGTV audience is male.
This is programming that gets under your skin, experts say. Finch conducts her own unscientific focus groups by carrying a bag with a large HGTV logo, and admits that people are always coming up to her to say, "I'm addicted to House Hunters. I'm so angry that my DVR is full because of you!" The other comment she hears frequently is, "How can I meet the Property Brothers I love them. Are they single" (For the record, they are.) A new show coming out this summer, Bargain Beach Houses, shows much promise. Houses are highlighted that are on American, family-friendly beaches in the $300,000 range.
Shows like Iron Chef America, Chopped and Restaurant Impossible are the ones that got Food Network to its top ten place of all 100 cable channels, believes Jon Steinlauf. "There's drama, racing against the clock. These are challenges that appeal to people who aren't necessarily food enthusiasts."
That same theory applies to many of the most popular lifestyle shows, such as Bravo's Interior Therapy with Jeff Lewis. Lewis comes to a house where he helps a family in crisis, always involving the design of their home. In the first episode, he meets with two men who are living in a wrecked mansion. "By fixing their home, he's also looking to fix their lives," explains Shari Levine. "Jeff is not a warm and fuzzy man. Part of his appeal is that he doesn't suffer fools. He's dryly funny, with interesting observations of people and the homes they live in," continues Levine. "He has a short fuse and says what's on his mind, which is often hilarious and gets him into a lot of trouble. But at the end of the day, the family has a beautifully re-designed space."
The future for lifestyle programming looks bright. Each network is making way for new shows. Digital content is growing and original. Program executives are constantly developing new talent, new shows and new franchises. With passion points such as beauty, fashion, food, real estate, design, there's enough content to keep the genre going for a long, long while.