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October 09, 2019

Her Happy Place

Networks that delight are the domain of Discovery’s Kathleen Finch, who is hailed by colleagues for her creative cross-promotions.

Jacqueline Cutler
  • John B;ack Photography
  • Kate Gosselin stomps grapes with a would-be beau on Kate + Date

  • Drew and Jonathan Scott give a hand to Maureen McCormick and Christopher Knight on A Very Brady Renovation

  • Drew Scott and Linda Phan on Drew and Linda Say I Do

  • Paige Davis swaps keys on Trading Spaces

  • Judges Marcus Samuelsson, Alex Guarnaschelli and Maneen Chauhan with host Ted Allen on Chopped


Kathleen Finch could really have a lot more attitude.

As chief lifestyle brands officer at Discovery, she presides over more networks than anyone else in television. So, people would certainly understand if she flaunted her power, just a little. Instead, Finch is so extraordinarily approachable, it's disarming. Compared to more flamboyant network bosses, she flies under the radar.

When Discovery bought Scripps Networks for $14.6 billion in March 2018, Finch, then Scripps's chief programming, content and brand officer, was a natural for the new position.

She now oversees 11 networks: HGTV, Food Network, TLC, ID, Travel Channel, DIY Network, Cooking Channel, Discovery Life, American Heroes Channel, Destination America and Great American Country, as well as the company's Digital Studios Group. Combined, they account for a commanding daytime market share of 16 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 54.

In today's fragmented market, where such numbers are particularly elusive, Finch is keenly aware of what plays and why. "We have beloved brands," she says in her office, an oasis of calm above the bustle of Manhattan's Chelsea Market. "We have women who just love what we do. They love it, love it."

That love grows to staggering proportions in primetime, harking back to the ratings of broadcast's glory days. Discovery Inc. president and CEO David Zaslav notes that the programs under Finch's aegis "reach 25 percent of women every night in America — more than any broadcast network."

Finch had asked to run the division once all the female-skewing networks were under the Discovery umbrella, Zaslav recalls. "She is incredibly creative," he says. "She loves television and has a great palate. She's using the platform to cross-promote. If you're watching ID, she'll tell you what's happening on HGTV."

The key is holding on to this vast audience. If viewers are going to switch channels, Finch wants to ensure they're clicking to another in the Discovery family. "We really try to build a wall around them and keep them," she says. "I don't want them to leave. I don't want them to sample other things. A Food Network viewer gets tired of Food Network? Check out what's happening on ID, check out what's happening on TLC."

The result has been a boon, as far as the CEO is concerned. "People love her," Zaslav says. "I love her. She's got a hell of a business sense."

It's an enormously powerful position, yet Finch, a stately blonde, remains devoid of airs. A former journalist — she wrote for magazines including Cosmopolitan and Cigar Aficionado and notched 12 years with CBS as a news producer — Finch is at ease with reporters. That's not a trait all network bosses share.

The mother of three grown daughters, she enjoys being an empty-nester with her husband of 33 years. They live in Manhattan, where she grew up.

Decades before HGTV was teaching viewers how to revitalize properties, Finch's parents flipped brownstones. Her father, a fiction writer, and her mother, a licensing agent, enlisted their children to help with the renovations. They also emphasized reading — and they didn't have a television.

When Finch moved across the country to study English literature at Stanford University, she bought a small set.

"My parents were horrified," she says, but she realized then how much she loved the medium. She still does.

When she's not watching her own networks, Finch consumes a lot of news. She's also a fan of the BritBox streaming service. As much as she enjoys a juicy drama, however, she's not steering Discovery toward scripted shows. Nonfiction programs are working beautifully, so there's no need to fiddle with the foundations of the networks.

Success, however, does not mean stagnation. "At the end of the day, the filter that we put it through is: what does the viewer want?" she says. "What would make the viewer happy?"

Overlap among stations is intentional, with some — such as Cooking Channel in the shadow of Food Network, and DIY in HGTV's orbit — created both to ward off competition and to build the ranks. "We're able to use them as feeder networks, to find talent and series," Finch explains.

Many network executives openly bemoan the Netflix effect, fretting over talent lost to the streaming giant's deep pockets, but Finch doesn't. She's not above worrying, but her model is different.

"We don't go and take other people's stars and just put them on one of our networks," Finch says. "We build them. We give them careers." That's fitting for channels that celebrate creating from scratch, and that welcome people who may be a little different.

Guy Fieri, who's still as friendly as when he shot to fame on The Next Food Network Star in 2006, credits the network for his trajectory. When he first won on the show, he already had a restaurant, and he'd already invented Donkey Sauce (a goofy name he gave aioli when he was chef on a cruise ship). Now he has some 60 restaurants and has logged some 1,500 episodes on TV.

"With Kathleen, what you see is what you get," Fieri says. "She will tell it to you politely and gently and respectfully, but she won't beat about the bush. She is like a coach, who just gives it to you straight. She's also incredibly supportive and enthusiastic. So, on the one hand, you've got a no-nonsense coach, and on the other, you have an enthusiastic, over-the-top supporter."

Last year, Finch arranged for Fieri to swim with the sharks on Discovery's annual summer fin fest, Shark Week. it's the sort of cross-network promotion Finch relishes — if the match is right.

When Drew Scott, half of HGTV's The Property Brothers, married Linda Phan last year, Drew and Linda Say I Do was a natural for TLC.

In addition to scouting for new shows, Finch also mines old shows for new angles, which is why she's bringing back Kate Gosselin. Although Kate Plus 8 was less popular near the end than the heyday of Jon & Kate Plus 8, Finch maintains, "People are fascinated with her."

The sextuplets are "beautiful young adults," and a decade after she and Jon split, Gosselin is dating. So, in keeping with reality celebrities whose private lives are public, Gosselin searched for love — with the help of a network-provided matchmaker — on Kate + Date, this spring on TLC.

"This is why we love our stars," Finch says. "Would I live my life that way? Probably not. Do I want to watch it? Heck, yeah!"

Another popular series with a natural spinoff is TLC's Say Yes to the Dress. In January, the network launched Say Yes to the Nest, which follows brides who found their wedding gowns on Dress as they search for their first homes on HGTV.

Finch also revived perennial favorite While You Were Out on both HGTV and TLC, with subtly different versions created for each network.

"On the TLC makeover shows, like Trading Spaces, it's a little bit more about the emotion, the drama, surprise and fun," she explains. "On HGTV, a show like The Property Brothers is really more about design, expertise and the utility."

Another revival and a true makeover show, What Not to Wear, will return to TLC in 2020. The home companion, What Not to Design, bows on HGTV next year, Finch announced at the Upfronts.

Beyond consolidating offices, the Discovery-Scripps merger has had another interesting result: bringing together casts. and when the shows' stars mingle, Finch gets a kick out of how they fangirl over one another.

Paige Davis, of Trading Spaces, reveals a longtime crush on the Property Brothers. She recalls reading that Jonathan had said, "His perfect woman was someone with smiling eyes and a loud laugh. And I read it and raised my hand and said, 'I am right here.'" She reports that when she eventually met him, "I told him, and he looked at me like I was an absolute idiot. But it is true."

The brothers are among those working on one of TV's most iconic houses, the split-level where six kids, a housekeeper, a widow and a widower became the Brady Bunch in the '70s sitcom of the same name.

Last year, HGTV bought the Studio City, California, house to make A Very Brady Renovation. The show, which premiered in September, pairs each of the six Brady kids — now middle-aged — with the network's renovation stars.

Finch can't hide a smile as she confesses, "I took something from the house — with permission." A pair of 1970s-era cement feet with mosaic tiles now adorns her Manhattan patio, far from its longtime home in the Bradys' garden.

Generally, though, her design sense runs toward the higher end, an occupational hazard. Watching countless design shows has left her with expensive taste. "I get very picky about marble," she says. "I have cost my husband a lot of money."

Finch picks up tips from other shows, too; she learned on Food Network about blooming spices in a sauté pan before cooking.

The network has plenty of avid fans. A go-to choice everywhere from doctor's offices to jury waiting rooms, Food Network has become a safe place in an often divisive, unpleasant world.

It delivers the "highest co-viewing in all of cable," Finch says of its multi-generational audiences. "Our sweet spot is a 45-year-old mom and her 10-year-old kid." Her personal favorite? "Chopped is my crack," she says of the competition show that's been airing for 10 years.

A typical assignment on Chopped is to make a meal out of crayfish, canned chicken, corncob jelly and sweet lemons. Though just considering such incongruous ingredients may induce shudders, it also prompts grins. While this may be a little silly, it's not mindless, and it's never mean. All Finch's shows share that same important mindset: mean doesn't pay.

Sure, audience members may find a chef annoying, or some prospective beau a bit of a bore. We may root against someone, hoping that our pick will succeed. But there are no intentional bad guys, no manufactured melodramas. Audiences are smart enough to know when they're being manipulated, and that's just not part of the Discovery formula.

"One of the tenets of TLC, and one of the reasons it is so successful, is it's showing everybody's life," Finch says. "It is celebrating differences. It is all very positive and very real." As an example, she cites TLC's I Am Jazz, starring Jazz Jennings, a transgender activist and YouTube personality.

"We celebrate lives," Finch says. "We don't exploit lives."

That determined niceness is a hallmark of her leadership, too. Many mergers lead to power struggles and lingering rifts, but colleagues say this business union was atypical. Multiple separate interviews with network bosses who now report to Finch reveal remarkably similar takes on her collegial style and emphasis on collaboration.

She calls regular meetings of her teams and expects everyone to pitch ideas outside their comfort zones. "The team is more successful than the individual, and smart people trying to solve problems as a group come up with many better ideas than one person sitting in a room alone," Finch says. "We don't reward fiefdoms. We reward collaborative efforts."

Executives — some who were already at Discovery, others who worked with Finch at Scripps — have responded enthusiastically to her passion and challenges.

"We weren't born to work in one genre," says Jane Latman, who in April left Travel Channel to become president of HGTV. "It's more of a conversation, a great way to get everyone from the companies to meet each other." Howard Lee, president and general manager of TLC and Discovery Life, had been working there for a decade, but he describes seismic and positive changes under Finch.

"It's been very rejuvenating for me," he says. "An influx of all these new brothers and sisters whom I never knew. I'm learning a lot from them."

Finch has long mentored women, and among those who have benefited from her lessons is Courtney White, president of Food Network and Cooking Channel. She praises Finch's natural connection to her audience.

"Monday mornings she calls me and says, 'Did you see this on Twitter?' She is so plugged in, in a way you wouldn't expect at her level," White says. "She is not interested in being fussy or pristine. She wants to please the masses."

Another executive Finch mentored, Allison Page, past president of HGTV and DIY and now president of the upcoming Chip and Joanna Gaines venture, says, "She's a big believer in shared creativity. At Scripps, the networks were separate and brought together under her. If you are a smart, creative person, just because you mostly think about food doesn't mean it is all you should think about.

"What I have done would never have been possible without her."

Glowing quotes like these may sound like the hyperbole from which press releases are spun, but all these executives chatted separately after a couple of drinks at a company party. The responses were unrehearsed and sincere. Finch inspires this sort of loyalty.

After a packed year, Finch considers her goals for the second year of this huge job: "To make our networks as strong and as multi-platform and as internationally successful as possible," she says. "To build new star talent — that's always such a gratifying thing. To see our talent become household names is really exciting. You feel kind of like a proud mom when that happens."

But, in the end, Finch is proudest of the shows themselves.

"We are not flipping tables," she says of the networks' offerings. "We are not screaming and yelling. We are not talking trash. We're solving mysteries. We're feeding people. We're teaching things. And we're making people happy."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019

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