Discovery Bets On Scripps Veteran Kathleen Finch To Drive Home Post-Merger Results

Discovery Kathleen Finch

For Kathleen Finch, March has always been hectic, the annual time for Scripps Networks Interactive to set off on its annual upfront road show. Rather than one big blowout in New York, the Knoxville, Tenn.-based owner of Food Network, HGTV and Travel Channel would stop in several cities to make pitches to ad buyers, with Finch, a seasoned and unflappable ex-journalist, steering the ship.

Now, with Scripps just days away from the close of a $14.6 billion merger with Discovery Communications, Finch is getting a much bigger assignment. She was named today the Chief Lifestyle Brands Officer of the combined company. Her portfolio will now include 11 networks, adding major nets such as ID and TLC to her existing Scripps roster as well as Discovery’s lifestyle digital studio. Rich Ross, the Disney and Shine vet who joined Discovery in 2014, is exiting the company. The promotion vaults Finch into one of the most prominent positions in cable, and is noteworthy also in terms of having a major female exec in a key managerial role at a major media company. There are two with bigger corner offices now, in fact — longtime Discovery veteran Nancy Daniels, who most recently guided TLC, was promoted to replace Ross and lead Discovery Channel and Science Channel. Her new title is Chief Brand Officer, Discovery & Factual.

The poised and affable Finch, though, is not yet as widely known a figure as Daniels or even more established peers like A+E Networks boss Nancy Dubuc. She came to the cable world — and Scripps — in 1999 after being a print journalist and then spending 12 years chasing stories around the world as a producer at CBS News. Her promotion immediately drew high marks from those who have seen her up close. “She never takes her eye off the ball and operationally is always looking for ways to improve,” one exec at a rival cable programmer told Deadline. “But she also has an incredibly sure touch with talent. People respond to her. That’s a really rare combination.”

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Finch has popularized home-grown talent — e.g., the Property Brothers on HGTV — and also shrewdly blended recognizable celebrities and unscripted settings. Vanilla Ice came to DIY on her watch, for example, kicking off a star-renovation trend in 2010 that mushroomed to include Mr. T, Darryl Hall, Reverend Run and many more. The same knack served her in the digital realm, where Scripps ramped up quickly, stocking Snapchat and other emerging platforms with food-and-shelter content designed to complement and amplify linear shows. “We find the best specialists in their field and combine what they’re good at with what we’re great at,” Finch said during last year’s New York upfront event. “The result is hundreds of recognizable personalities and lifestyle experts across every platform.”

One unscripted producer, who requested anonymity in order to preserve other business relationships, told Deadline that Finch “is instantly going to infuse life into the Discovery side of the house because she has a track record and she just goes after it. Creators who sort of looked over there and wondered if they maybe had started losing some mojo are definitely going to want her as their champion.”

Although Finch offers reason for optimism, the general view of the merger on Wall Street is not exactly ebullient. “Scripps doesn’t change Discovery’s strategic positioning,” Sanford Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger wrote this week in a research note expressing a widely held sentiment. “It combines two similar companies, which already have the highest domestic operating margins of any cable network groups, giving Discovery a lot more exposure to the same problems, with much higher leverage.”

David Zaslav, the hard-charger who arrived at Discovery as CEO 11 years ago from NBC, has been avidly trying to counter that narrative, arguing that unscripted programming is worlds away from the risk and expense of the 500-show scripted world. During Discovery’s fourth-quarter earnings call on Tuesday, Zaslav offered something approaching a mission statement, saying the company “doesn’t do red carpets or fancy openings,” instead preferring to fill the pipeline with a symphony of reliable, purposefully arrayed unscripted choices.

That brief suits Finch. While affable and thoughtful, she also has taken decisive action during a 19-year run at Scripps that saw her rise to chief programming, content and brand officer after rising through the home-improvement ranks.

One of Finch’s collaborators, Jon Steinlauf, was another key part of the exec announcement that drew the industry’s attention. Steinlauf was tapped to lead the sales efforts at the combined company. Working closely with Finch, Steinlauf also developed a solid industry rep and managed to keep revenue on a positive track by supplementing traditional spot buys with increasingly inventive branded entertainment concepts.

Ben Price, who had stepped in for Joe Abruzzese when the sales guru retired in 2016, will now report to Steinlauf, a savvy veteran who has sought to emphasize a key Scripps advantage at every turn: Viewers watch its networks live, more than any network but ESPN over most weekends. The notion of DVR-ing a Chopped marathon is antithetical to the network’s always-on essence. If you’re trying to charm the culturati, live viewing is out of vogue, but if you’re trying to sell Subarus, it works pretty well.

Steinlauf takes the helm at a precarious time for all TV programmers, however. While ad revenue has risen 10% to 15% for both Discovery and Scripps, ratings in the aggregate have fallen by comparable levels in that time frame, Juenger notes.

“The fact that domestic advertising is still growing (for both companies) is amazing,” he wrote. “But sustainable? The most popular discussion we have with investors regarding TV advertising continues to be: ‘when will it break?’ TV advertising customers are paying a lot more, for a lot less, than they used to just a short while ago.”

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