Interview Date: Friday February 04, 2005
Interview Location: Knoxville, TN
Interviewer: Steve Nelson
Program: Legacy Project
NELSON: Burton, let’s just go back a little bit to your early days and just get a sense of who you are and where you came from. Talk about growing up and particularly the role of television in your life when you were young.
JABLIN: That’s going back a long way now. When I was young I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and I did watch TV from an early age. I have to say, this sounds very geeky, but I would watch news. I watched the Today Show; I was a huge fan of the Today Show.
NELSON: This is as a young child?
JABLIN: This is from about the time I was about five years old. My parents probably were really worried about me and I remember the anchors then, the hosts, were Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters and Joe Garagiola, and Frank Woods, I think – is that his name? – whoever it was did the news, and that’s what I wanted to do. I knew from that time I wanted to be the host of the Today Show. That was my goal and I still have it to this day, but you know, that job’s taken. But I watched cartoons, too, and stuff like that but I do remember the Today Show and then I switched and started watching what was the predecessor of Good Morning, America which was called AM America.
NELSON: This was a Chicago-based…?
JABLIN: No, that was national. It was with Bill Beutel and Stephanie Edwards, I think. And then in Chicago that show did so badly that the ABC affiliate there, the ABC owned station, WLS, put on a show called AM Chicago and I started watching that. I was a little older now, I was probably eight or nine or something, and that show eventually moved to 9:00 because Good Morning, America came on and I couldn’t watch it anymore because I went to school, but I remember that Robb Weller became the host of that show. This was when I was in junior high or high school, I can’t quite remember, and then Oprah Winfrey eventually replaced Robb Weller. Now, if you flip ahead a couple of decades, Robb Weller and his company, Weller-Grossman, a production company out of LA became one of the first producers for HGTV, and I remember when I met Rob for the first time – and he’d gone on to host Entertainment Tonight and had a career as an on-air person, game shows and such, but now was really making some success behind the scenes as a producer – I said, “Rob! I remember watching you in Chicago!” And he said, “Oh, that’s going back a long time.” I said, “I know! I was in junior high or grade school.” He was just totally deflated. This was going way back. But Rob, I’ve known him for a long time now, and he and his partner Gary Grossman have just been, I think, among the most prolific producers for HGTV and just a great example of how in television you never quite know where your career is going to take you and I guess mine is kind of the same way.
NELSON: So those roots were established way back. So you talked about junior high, high school, kind of that time period. You went off to college; I guess you went to Harvard?
JABLIN: I did. I went to Harvard and never did anything in television at all.
NELSON: Did they have a program?
JABLIN: No, because that would be a trade and Harvard doesn’t really teach trades. I did work on the newspaper though…
NELSON: The Crimson?
JABLIN: The Crimson, and spent all my time there, and what a great group of people, many of whom today are bylines that you read in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, you name it, or on television in various capacities. So I’m jealous of them all to this day, but you know, it was a great training ground just in journalism and that’s what I thought I wanted to do but in television. I didn’t know how I would get into television. I just had no clue. I thought, well, maybe an internship and I tried that but I couldn’t get one anywhere. I did a little writing for the local PBS station in Boston, WGBH, but that was just kind of dabbling, and then one day, and this is sort of an only at Harvard story, I understand that, I was chatting with the dean of the faculty, who I covered as part of my beat, and he said, “Well, what are you going to do after graduation?” and I said, “Well, I don’t know. I’d like to go into television, television news, and be a reporter,” and he said, “Well, in that case you should speak to Frank Stanton.” And I said, “Frank Stanton! That’s like saying if I want to be in politics I should speak to the President.” And he said, “No, he’s a member of the board of overseers of Harvard and he would be happy to speak to you.” I thought, well, that’s good, but how do I make that happen? Well, skip ahead a couple months and it turned out Frank Stanton was going to be at Harvard at the Kennedy School of Government to speak at a symposium about the most recent presidential election, which I guess that would have been 1980, Carter-Reagan. This was in ’81, I believe, and all the top names in TV news and print journalism were there along with some politicians and I thought, well, I’ll cover this for the newspaper, write a story about it, and then I can meet all these people and ask them for help in getting a job. But I saw that Dr. Stanton was going to be there and I’d researched him, I knew of him, but then I read a lot about him and more about his career. When he walked in, I went up to him and introduced myself and I mentioned the dean had said I should try to get together with him to discuss TV news and I thought he’ll just laugh at me. Instead, he, in a very business-like manner, whipped out his appointment book and said, “Meet me at the Faculty Club tomorrow morning for breakfast at 7:00 AM,” and I said, “I’ll be there!” Well, I hadn’t gotten up at 7:00 AM in like four years. I was up and ready to go.
NELSON: Did you even get to sleep?
JABLIN: Yeah, I did, although we put the paper to bed every day at about 3:00 in the morning, so I didn’t get much sleep. I got to the Faculty Club and explained what I wanted to do and he said what I thought he would say, “You’ve got to get a job at a small station and work your way up.” I thought, well, that’s good advice, thank you, not much more than I already knew. Well, a couple months later I got a letter that just said “the enclosed memos speak for themselves” and he’d written a memo to a guy who was then the head of the TV station group at CBS, who I think was Neil Derrough at the time, and that had cascaded down as these things often do and ended up in the office of Eric Ober, who was the vice-president of news for all the CBS O&Os, and Eric’s secretary, Joan Roth, called me up and said, “Eric wants to speak to you, so come to New York.” I thought, okay! He gave me the same advice, you’ve got to get in touch with stations all over the country, but he also gave me the name of a guy named Frank Gardner, who was the news director at WBBM in Chicago and said…
NELSON: That name’s come up a lot today, obviously.
JABLIN: I’m sure it has. I said, “Thank you.” So I wrote about sixty letters to TV stations all over the country. Back then there was no internet so I got out the big broadcast book and just looked up addresses and news directors and wrote about sixty and kept it to markets like over 100 – I mean, these were tiny places.
NELSON: Were these typed letters, by the way, at that time?
JABLIN: Oh, yeah.
NELSON: So this is a lot of work. It’s not changing names in the address heading.
JABLIN: Oh, this isn’t word processing in a computer. This is before computers. There were computers, but this was not when we had them in our rooms, for example, and I got all rejections. I still have them, and not even one, yeah, sure, let’s talk. All rejections. But I did write Frank Gardner at WBBM and I never heard back. So, I didn’t even get a rejection, nothing! So then I got back to Chicago after graduating in 1982 and I wrote him again and said, “I’m now in Chicago, so I can come in anytime you want.” Well, sure enough, he called and said we have an opening for a researcher position to work for the anchorman who also did commentaries there named Walter Jacobson, and I’d watched Walter from the time I was little. He hated when I would say that to him. I interviewed for the job and got it, so that’s how I got my start. It was a very roundabout way of getting my start in TV news.
NELSON: So did they see you as a research type person? He worked for The Crimson, went to Harvard, he must be smart, he can do research?
JABLIN: Well, Frank would have to answer that, but basically yes. All his questions for me were what had I read recently, what books, what movies had I seen, nothing about news or what I wanted to do, and I thought, boy, he’s an interesting character. Now of course I’ve known Frank for 23 years and he becomes more interesting with every passing day.
NELSON: So you went to work and took this researcher job?
JABLIN: I did.
NELSON: And what was that like?
JABLIN: Walter Jacobson – people might have heard of him. His partner at the time, by the way, was Bill Kurtis. They were the number one anchor team in Chicago, and so going to work there in what was then the second largest television market in the country, now it’s the third behind Los Angeles and New York, but then the second, for the number one station for an anchorman that I’d watched from the time I was a kid, I mean, this was beyond my imagination. I wasn’t on the air, but I certainly was doing something exciting and had an entrée that was really remarkable and I knew that. Frank Gardner was kind of a volatile character, especially back in those days, he’s calmed down now, and Walter was extremely volatile, an incredibly colorful character, very different from me. I’m very even-tempered and low-key, but Walter had a real strong personality and it was just quite an experience to work with him – a great experience because he really did teach me things that to this day I drive people here crazy with about television, but he was right then and he’s right now and it was just a great experience. And then I got other opportunities in the newsroom to be a TV news writer, then a producer field producing for the political reporter there, which was a great experience because I was on the campaign trail in the ’84 Presidential election, but I’m not a field producer. I have no idea what I’m doing in the field, can’t understand what camera, where it should be.
NELSON: Is this really your first production job to get away from the writing stuff?
JABLIN: Yeah, I had no idea what I was up to, but if you leave me in the studio and I could go in an edit room and work with video and don’t have to interview anybody, I’m fine. So I realize I wasn’t going to be a good reporter. This was just fine to stay behind the scenes and then I became a producer and executive producer. Frank Gardner, incidentally, left the station to go to the CBS station in New York within three months after I got there and I never heard from him or saw him again for eight years, and then out of the blue after I’d left WBBM and I’d quit – I just was tired of it, didn’t know what I wanted to do quit, was in Colorado for the summer – and Frank somehow tracked me down in 1991 and said, “You’ve got to come work in LA. That’s where I am now, at the Fox station.”
NELSON: Why did he go looking for you?
JABLIN: He must have heard that I had had an okay career at WBBM. I don’t really know.
NELSON: And you were available in some way or other.
JABLIN: Right, he knew I was available, I guess. How he tracked me down I still don’t know. I went out there and I thought, well, it gets me to LA and I want to be in entertainment. That was my new goal, to be in entertainment, and sure, I’ll try it. So I got there. It was a very dejected, dysfunctional newsroom, as all newsrooms are to one degree or another, some are just a little less dysfunctional, but a really good group of people. They just were dispirited after a lot of years of management changes and I was now the fifth executive producer in like two years and they just wondered what I was going to do. In fact, one of the reporters, when I introduced myself, said, “So what are you going to do to us?” I said, “Well, I hope that I’m going to work in a pleasant way with everybody,” and it was quite a time to be there. It was a period where we had the Rodney King riots, unfortunately. It was a terrible time economically in LA. There were all sorts of carjackings they had at the time, there were earthquakes and floods. It was just a horrible time to be there, but of course for news it’s really good, but I decided I really didn’t like doing that either, and there was a regime change and Frank was kind of pushed out and I just said, “You know what? I just can’t do this anymore.” And I quit there and decided I’m just going to travel and really think about what to do, and I did. I traveled for about a year, stayed in touch with Frank. By now we had become friends.
NELSON: Where did you go?
JABLIN: Oh, I quit my job on a Wednesday and by Friday I was in New Zealand. My sister was living there at the time so I had a place to go. I started there, New Zealand, Australia, Bali, Nepal, I went trekking in Nepal, I went to Europe.
NELSON: So is this one of those young, seeking…
JABLIN: I wasn’t that young.
NELSON: Well, how old were you at this point?
JABLIN: About 30, 32, 33? By then you’re not supposed to be doing this anymore.
NELSON: Yeah, well, that’s why I thought you were younger.
JABLIN: No, I missed my chance right after college, but you know, I’d saved up enough money to do it which was a good thing because I didn’t have to sleep in tents all the time, although we did in Nepal and paid for it. I did a lot of hiking in Europe, north of the Arctic, everywhere. I traveled in the United States a lot, visited friends. So that was about a year and then I had to start working again and Frank, in the meantime, had come back to Scripps working in Cincinnati and I stayed in touch with him and by about fall of 1993 he was saying, “You know, we’re talking about this idea for a home and garden channel and you’ve got to meet Ken Lowe. He’s got this great idea and there may be something for you to do there.” In fact, Frank gave me a call which I picked up a voice mail message – no cell phones at that time, although they existed of course, but I just didn’t have one – picked up the call on my way to Scandinavia to go hiking for about three weeks and he told me this. I said, “Well, Frank, it sounds great but I’ll have to get in touch when I come back from the Arctic,” and I did and I flew to Cincinnati and met Ken and he did his presentation, which at the time was on the fabled cardboard things like you have at a science fair with magic marker and pictures torn out from magazines and he does the presentation and says, “Well, what do you think?” And I said, “Well, sounds kind of interesting.” I didn’t know. Home and garden? What did I know about that?
NELSON: And did you know anything about cable, either, at that point?
JABLIN: No, nothing!
NELSON: You’d been in the broadcast business, essentially.
JABLIN: Right, I had no clue, but I needed a job so I thought it sounds pretty good to me. So Frank and I kept talking over the next few weeks and then he called me with the news over the Christmas holidays and said it’s going to be in Knoxville, so you’ve got to come down and check out Knoxville, and I did that in February or March of ’94 and Ken was here and at the same time Ed Spray was here, and Ed might have told this story too, on that visit in March when I came down to Knoxville and took a look around Knoxville and thought this is a nice place, I can be here, and of course I flew down from Chicago – I was still living in LA but I was visiting my family in Chicago – in Chicago it was about 20 below and in March here it’s pretty nice, it’s already spring. I thought, not bad! But Ken put Ed and me in a room together while we waited to talk to him and Ed I knew going back to BBM, just barely. I was in news and he was in programming and we actually met again when he was in LA and I was in LA, but I didn’t know him. But we got in the room together and Ed said, “So what do you think about this idea for HGTV?” And I said, “Well, I don’t really know anything about the topic, but we can figure it out.” We talked for about an hour and began to think through how we would put together Ken’s vision in a real honest-to-goodness programming way and that’s kind of how our association began.
NELSON: So do you think that was a deliberate ploy to stick you together, to leave you alone, because an hour is a long time – “I’ll be right back” and an hour later you’re still there – just to see how you guys interacted?
JABLIN: I’d like to think so but I think Ken was just running late. He was interviewing a woman named Carol Hicks that day, too, and Carol became our head of PR. She was already living here.
NELSON: So this wasn’t a sophisticated, human resources technique for figuring out who these guys are?
JABLIN: In a word, no. The great thing, there are many great things about Ken, but one of the really good things is he really, I think, gets a good feel about people just as people and Frank was vouching for Ed and me and other people who subsequently were hired in terms of what we could do and I think Ken just wanted to know that he could put together a group of people who got along and if Ed and I could spend an hour together just kind of chatting amicably and enjoy it, that probably augured well. But that’s what Ken, I think, did. He wanted to put together a mix of people that got along that really could work in a shared way, and of course that remains one of our core values today, shared responsibility, and it worked. We’re all still here, basically.
NELSON: Yeah, I can see that. So you took the job right away? Were you offered the job?
JABLIN: Well, technically Ed had to offer me the job, but we were basically hired at the same time. I then started two weeks before Ed just because he had to finish up his teaching responsibilities at Syracuse University. So, yeah, they called pretty quickly and I accepted pretty quickly and I say now that ignorance was bliss back then because if I had known what it took to put a cable network on the air, let alone make it successful, my very practical, calculating side might have said, “You know, you might have wanted to take that job in Chicago instead,” in broadcast, but fortunately I really was deciding among about three offers at the time and this, I said to myself and my friends when I talked to them about it, this was the most different, the biggest change and got me more toward where I wanted to be which was out of anything to do with news, and yet it still was information-based programming, so I didn’t feel completely ill at ease with working on a subject that I didn’t know much about in a field that I didn’t know how it operated. But that didn’t seem to bother anybody else, so I couldn’t let it bother me.
NELSON: Were you really looking for a change? News – you’d kind of been there, done that, was that part of your motivation? Or was it just Ken’s great persuasiveness?
JABLIN: It was a combination. I was looking for a change out of news. I was looking for a job because I’d been traveling now for almost a year and a half and I hadn’t saved that much money, and I just got a good feeling from Ken, who I really didn’t know, from Ed, who I knew a little bit and knew of his reputation. Frank I knew but I knew he wasn’t going to be directly involved with us, but nonetheless, if he was vouching for it that said a lot to me, and it just seemed like something I couldn’t turn down and I thought, well, if it doesn’t work out after a couple years I’ll have done my time and I can go on to something else.
NELSON: Still young enough to find other jobs?
JABLIN: Well, I was well aware that I was working in a business, or I still work in a business, that likes youth, so I was not as young as I might have been. So I knew I kind of had to figure something out pretty quickly. That was back in ’94, so I was 34.
NELSON: Okay, so you went to work there in April?
JABLIN: April of ’94. April 15th is the day.
NELSON: And you were going to go on the air, I know, by the end of the year and there were reasons for that. Ken explained them.
JABLIN: Well, no, at the time it was October.
NELSON: It was October. So you went in there in April thinking you were going to put this network on in October? Am I hearing that correctly?
JABLIN: Well, yeah, we wanted to put the network… yes, that’s correct. See, I said, ignorance is bliss.
NELSON: And this was going to be a network that was primarily built around original programming and you’re Mr. Programmer?
JABLIN: Ed was sort of the one who was worrying more about it because Ed knew enough about getting programs on the air having been in programming, on the programming side, and working with that world, that October when you were starting in April just seemed pretty quick. Now I, on the other hand, I just thought, well, we’ll keep on working away and we’ll get some shows together and that’ll be that. Now, of course in news, the most I’d had to fill was an hour every night. This was 20 ½ hours and even with a robust, shall we say, repeat schedule that was a lot of time to fill and it took a lot of shows. So thankfully, at a fateful meeting I think that was held that summer – I wasn’t at that meeting – they made it December, December 30th.
NELSON: That still was not a lot of breathing room given what you were trying to accomplish.
JABLIN: It wasn’t, but it was just enough to allow us to get probably, I think we started with about nine or ten series, it might have been eleven, and a number of specials, and we had a repeat schedule that was very frequent knowing that we’d be lucky if we had any viewers, but we didn’t have a lot of viewership at the time.
NELSON: So you figured you could get away with it.
JABLIN: Yeah, it gave us something to run for awhile.
NELSON: So was that kind of a four, five, six hour cycle? Something like that?
JABLIN: I think we had a six hour block that we repeated four times, basically.
NELSON: And there’s your 24 hours.
JABLIN: Well, we were on 20 ½ so we must have varied it in primetime to make up the difference.
NELSON: What was the other 3 1/2?
NELSON: Infomercials – the early morning time slot?
JABLIN: At the time I think it was 3:00 until 6:30. That’s what it was.
NELSON: Yeah, the classic cable infomercial slot. So you started frantically putting this stuff together. Was there a sense as this deadline approached, “Oh my gosh, are we going to make this?” and you’re working harder and harder or did you start to feel like, okay, we’ve got this under control, which seems unlikely, but I thought I’d ask.
JABLIN: Well, for about the first, I would say, year and a half – so from April of ’94 until the end of ’95, so more than a year and a half – I would say we never felt like we were on top of it. There was just so much work and at the time it was Ed, Kristen Jordan, who came in as our other programming person with the idea that Kristen would help us on our contracts and negotiations and our acquisitions because she had been in the world of station relations for CBS and she kind of knew that world and knew contracts, and me. So, it was the three of us and we were just working constantly on just getting shows licensed, produced – most of it was original – and then also trying to figure out a program schedule, working with the operations team who were just terrific because they really were experienced in putting networks on the air and a lot of them had come from E! We worked with the team that was already here at then Cinetel Productions, and thank goodness for them because they knew the television business too and helped make shows for us, helped us on the editing side for things like promos and sales tapes. Having the facility here was a huge boost to us because we didn’t have to go outside, it was all right here. Yet it was so much work that there really wasn’t a lot of time to think through grand strategies or philosophies. We just knew we had to get some shows on the air and we knew they had to be credible and we knew that the quality was going to end up improving once we got things up and running. So we gave ourselves a little bit of slack on the quality level as long as we were credible in terms of the information.
NELSON: Now when you say slack on the quality, that has to do with production values, the nature of the talent, all those kinds of things?
JABLIN: Yep, not to say that these were bad shows or that there was anything wrong with them, it was just that by the standards of production values today and by the standards of the quality level of hosts, let’s say, and experts, they were not as advanced.
NELSON: And you’d worked in some very major television stations so they had certain standards as well.
JABLIN: Yeah, plus, I have to say, our budgets were not robust and so the production companies, many of them were working on time tables that allowed them to make these shows on the budgets that we paid, which meant you cranked them out – studio shows, I’m talking about. It didn’t mean they were bad, it’s just that if something was slightly amiss you didn’t necessarily go back and fix it like you would on a field-based show or like we would today.
NELSON: Or there might be another piece of it you’d like to do that you’d say, well, we can’t get to that.
JABLIN: Something like that, yeah. And the hosts, if you go back and look, they were for the most part experts, so they had great credibility and that was purposeful at the beginning because we knew that people would say, “Well, why should I watch you? There’s This Old House and Victory Garden and I can read the magazines that I read. Who are you to say that you’re experts in home and garden?” So we knew we had to know what we were talking about and we also knew that in fields like gardening, landscaping, home improvement – decorating might be a little different because that’s more aesthetic – but if you’re doing an electrical fix on something or if you’re telling somebody how to grow an orchid, you need to know what you’re talking about because the people who are out there in the audience who do know what you should be talking about, they’ll listen to you once and if you don’t know it they’ll never come back. They’ll just say, “Who are you?” So we had to get it right from a credibility standpoint right away and we knew the production values would be forgiven for awhile and they could come around, which they did.
NELSON: Was there ever a time, not to put you on the spot here, that something you produced really flopped?
JABLIN: Oh, a lot of things didn’t work. Flop is…
NELSON: No, I’m after more the embarrassment, if you don’t mind.
JABLIN: You know, there really were not any embarrassments and people ask me this a lot and we get asked about bloopers a lot, but the fact of the matter is when you’re working in a field like home and garden where you’re doing decorating and home improvement and landscaping, there’s not a lot that really would be disastrous, you know. What would be a comparison? It wouldn’t be like a talk show, like a Jerry Springer Show where people start fighting – I mean, that’s good, I guess, for the Jerry Springer Show – but it’s just a different genre so there aren’t the extremes that are going to be either huge successes or tremendous flops, but you know, we had things that didn’t quite work that either were before their time for where HGTV had evolved and could work today, for example, or what we found quickly was that the audience was not very forgiving about anything that seemed contrived. So if we were very straightforward about what we were presenting – you know, these are real people with a real problem and we have a real decorator who’s going to help them solve the problem, that’s great. But when we took two guys who were both designers and have them argue about design like Siskel and Ebert – that was the idea, the Siskel and Ebert of design. The audience said, “Well, what do they have to argue about? Can’t they just disagree? It’s different taste. It’s not like there’s right or wrong.” The audience didn’t need that because they weren’t getting any great benefit from it. If it’s Siskel and Ebert, you’re trying to decide whether to go see a movie, so there’s a benefit to that. If you’re arguing over one color for somebody’s living room other than your own, that doesn’t really have an application for you. So it’s much better, we learned, to just be very straightforward with the audience and we learned very quickly that the real basis of why HGTV programs were successful was providing information, and then we developed this theory that we call the three Is, a philosophy, really, of programming, which was ideas, information and inspiration so that HGTV was always providing a benefit for the viewer and respecting the viewers intelligence when we were doing it.
NELSON: Now you’re saying ideas – these are ideas that you’re giving to people. Here’s an idea for…
JABLIN: How to make your living space better, or your yard better.
NELSON: And the information is much more specific – here’s how you do this…
JABLIN: It was then. It was much more do it yourself and how-to type information, but even shows that weren’t how-to they would provide ideas by showing you a room that was beautifully designed or a home that was wonderfully constructed that would perhaps inspire you then to think about how you could do your own space in a similar way that worked for you. So it was this combination of just providing a benefit to viewers that seems so obvious but if you really looked back then around the television landscape there was very little on television that did that and also did it all the time. So it wasn’t just during the Public Affairs Hour, if that even exists anymore on broadcast television, and it was just during Saturday mornings when you might expect programs in this category, it was all the time. So you always knew what you were going to get from HGTV in terms of providing information. The subject matter might be different half-hour to half-hour and that was intentional, but that was unusual for television and it remains unusual today to have programming that’s consistently high quality, good, positive, uplifting, respectful of people who are on the shows and respectful of the audience and providing information in an entertaining way that people can use. That is extremely rare except on, I have to say, the networks that Scripps owns.
NELSON: One of the things that was very unique about HGTV at the time was your call center, your interactivity, and this is back ten years ago. As somebody responsible for programming, what were you learning from what people were calling in and saying?
JABLIN: Early on, of course, we had no ratings and the only way we had any feedback was through an occasional focus group, which we didn’t have a lot of money for back then, and also letters – originally it was letters – and then we started taking phone calls, and then of course the internet came in and we started getting emails, but for a long time our primary source of information about what people thought about what we were doing was anecdotal. It was the call center and the mail that we got, and so we really paid a lot of attention to that and the good news for us was that it was overwhelmingly positive. It was almost impossible to come up with a negative letter and, at least in my experience in television, the only time in news that we heard from people was from when they were angry which was all the time. There was always something they wanted to complain about. You never heard anything positive form anyone, so for both Ed and me, and also for Kristen who was familiar with this from the CBS stations, this was just almost unbelievable to the point that we thought that this must be fake. I mean, this is like some group of people who must work for the advertisers – I mean, who knew what it was! We almost didn’t believe it, but then it kept going and it got bigger and bigger and at one point when we finally said we’ve got to switch this to the internet, we were getting about 10,000-12,000 letters and phone calls a month for HGTV. So, you know, upwards of 150,000 communications a year, almost all positive. We kept track of everything, we answered everything. It became so overwhelming with letters that we would have weekend letter writing response parties where we would all get together – I didn’t do this so much as our viewer services group – but we would get together and just start answering, like typing out or handwriting, whatever it took, and people would write in not just with compliments about the shows and about the network but they would be so interested in everything about the shows but not always what we were focusing on in the shows. So, for example, if we were taking a tour of a room and emphasizing the arrangement of the sofas and in the background there happened to be a lamp that we didn’t even mention people would write in and say, “That lamp! I need to know where to get that,” and we would endeavor to find out and for the most part give a reply to everything. Now because of the volume it’s become internet-based, we can use a frequently asked questions site on our website, we have automated responses, but you still, if you send us an inquiry that can’t be answered in any other way, we’ll get a real, honest-to-goodness human response to you.
NELSON: So that’s always been a commitment that no matter what, whether it’s weekend letter writing or FAQs on line, you still have that commitment to responding to everything.
JABLIN: Yeah, we do. Now the website, of course, has taken on much more of a role in creating an ability for people to interact with HGTV to the tune of 3 ½ to 4 million unique visitors a month on average this past year in 2004. That really has become the way that people can communicate with the network, which is terrific because they really can customize their HGTV experience, and actually in the future I think that’s going to be even more an area, the website, where people will customize how they even view HGTV videos, let alone just interact with the written content that we have online.
NELSON: Going back to when you got the cards and letters, did you ever get anything in there that was, gee, why don’t you do a show about such and such or suggestions – I think that’s something people do – did you ever get something that made you say, yeah, that’s a good idea, let’s do it!
JABLIN: We would get suggestions more for segments that people thought we should do. Like “This house is beautiful, you should come there.” “My neighbor’s a great decorator.” “My neighbor’s a great gardener,” whatever it might be. Fewer show ideas, and actually we quickly developed a legally approved system for program submissions because you have to be very careful in our business, as anybody knows, that you have to have legal procedures in place or people will claim that you’ve stolen their idea. So we quickly understood that and had that in place, so we really couldn’t accept any ideas that came in unsolicited and we just send them back, basically.
NELSON: And in the early days of cranking this stuff out, even though you knew that you weren’t maybe really hitting your stride yet, was there something that you recall that, “Hey, I really feel pretty good about this series that we created.” Or did you not even have time to reflect on that?
JABLIN: The truth is we didn’t have time to reflect on whether things were good, bad or indifferent.
NELSON: As long as they filled the time slot?
JABLIN: As long as they filled the time. I know it seems like heresy to say that, and it’s long forgotten around here because of how much quality we have and how much control over the content and the extent to which we manage every second of what goes on at HGTV both in terms of the content and technically to where it’s as close to perfection as you can get. We say we strive for pragmatic perfection around here. You can never be perfect but we’re always trying to make things better. But, back then, truth be told, a lot just had to get on but when I would step back and think about it, you know, look at a show or show it to the rest of the staff because back then we all worked in the same area in the place that we called the loft, all the departments were together, there were about 35 of us…
NELSON: This was one big room? Dividers or something?
JABLIN: A big room, literally in the second floor of a warehouse that had been converted with just a bunch of tables, not even cubicles. There were six cubicles, I think, and they were the most sought after spaces in the entire network, but mainly it was just these long tables with phones. We looked like a call center or something.
NELSON: The boiler room?
JABLIN: The boiler room. So what would happen every now and again because everybody wanted to know how were the shows and I never had time to show them, but every now and again I’d call people in and we’d pop an episode of Willard Scott’s Home and Garden Almanac or Kitty Bartholomew Your Home or Star Gardens or the Carol Duvall Show and we’d pop it in and everybody would watch and say, “Well, thank goodness there’s actually something being done to put on the air,” because people didn’t believe it who were working here that we were really getting this much programming done, but it really was just a matter of getting it through the system back then.
NELSON: So there was a little bit of internal, let’s call it positive reinforcement about, yeah, hey, that was a pretty good show.
JABLIN: Oh yeah. Maybe you’ve heard this story from somebody else – we did play a practical joke on Frank Gardner one day. He came down here just to check on things – this was in the summer of 1994 – and so we were hard at work up in the loft and Frank was coming and Kristen had found a show in Australia, which was then one of the top shows in Australia called Burke’s Backyard. It was a gardening show, and they were crazy for gardening shows, probably still are in Australia and in England, of course, and so we got this episode of the show and there was a segment where it took place at night and it was out in the countryside and there was this giant plant that I think was a… I don’t know, I’m told I get it wrong when I say it’s a philodendron, but it was something that had this large cylindrical center that was its sex organ, I guess, it’s pistol or stamen – I’m not good with flowers – but it was gigantic! This was like the size of a person and the horticulturist was there with whoever the owner was and said, “Well, I understand that you have to manually stimulate this to get it to produce pollen, so can you show us how you do that?” And sure enough, on the tape, the owner dutifully starts manually stimulating the flower, and this goes on for a long time. They take things slowly, I guess, in Australia on their television. So we popped this in and showed it to Frank as this is our prize show. Now, we would never show this on HGTV, but we popped this in as look what we found! And Frank turned every shade of pale that you could possibly imagine. He thought we were serious and we finally said, “No, Frank, it’s just a joke.” This isn’t what’s going to go on. But the series Burke’s Backyard actually did make it to HGTV without that segment, so we were mindful of our attempt to make it a family-friendly network in every way.
NELSON: Was that unusual for you to be acquiring programming from abroad?
JABLIN: Back then we had in mind that in order to fill up the time, at least until we could get more of our original programming done, that we would get a few acquisitions and the way we went about doing this was to look at what was out there in the United States that would give us credibility instantly. So Ed and Kristen went after some big titles – This Old House, New Yankee Workshop and Victory Garden being the ones that we really wanted. The negotiation for This Old House went on for more than a year and resulted in a document that I think was about that thick.
NELSON: Was this with GBH?
JABLIN: This was with GBH, but finally we got This Old House on the air. It’s still on the air with HGTV today; it’s called This Old House Classics, and now also on DIY. New Yankee Workshop is still on HGTV, but also on DIY. Victory Garden no longer on with us. So those were the three big domestic ones, and then Kristen found some international shows from Australia and England and New Zealand, and we decided we would try – this was in our second year – try an hour every Friday night called the International Hour because we didn’t know what else to do with Friday night and we didn’t have enough programming to fill it up. So it’s the International Hour, and sure enough we package these up and that ran for a little while, and then the other night that’s kind of funny, Saturday night, we had filled in Monday through Friday, half of Friday, with our original programming and then of course it all repeated during the day, but on the schedule we had nothing for Saturday, I mean literally nothing left.
NELSON: For the whole day?
JABLIN: Saturday night. Saturday day was just repeats of…
NELSON: Well, that was a good time for you.
JABLIN: So we said, eh, Saturday night, nobody’s home, nobody’s watching television, let’s just do reruns of all the decorating shows from during the week but we’ll give it a name, we’ll package it, and Dusty Schmidt, who was our head of creative services, came up with Design Time Saturday Night. Our fallback at HGTV was to be as literal as possible when we had nothing else to be creative with. So it was Design Time Saturday Night, all repeats of decorating shows from during the week and that’s what we did for Saturday. After a couple of years on the air we finally got ratings and it turned out Saturday night, the night of the repeats, the throwaway night, was the highest rated night of the week by far and remains one of our highest rated nights today, although it’s all original programming now on Saturday.
NELSON: Did that tell you that you had maybe a family audience of people who weren’t going out because they had kids and that sort of thing?
JABLIN: Actually it told us something slightly different. It told us that Saturday night we could get an audience because there really wasn’t a lot of great programming on Saturday nights, so it was a night with much less competition on the broadcast networks, especially, but on cable as well, and also we had a subject matter, decorating, that quickly became apparent was our star category and so from those two things we began to build out even more.
NELSON: In terms of Saturday night these days? What did that evolved to away from this sort of recap of the reruns?
JABLIN: Well, we kept it design and decorating, it still is, it’s all design and decorating all night, but now there are premiers of shows on Saturday night because it really is a good night as other networks are finding, as well. In fact, one of our competitors at the time, TLC, had Trading Spaces on. It’s actually still on Saturday night here in 2005 but not getting quite the ratings it used to, so they saw an opportunity as well on Saturday, as did a lot of other networks. CBS began programming extremely female-oriented and family-friendly fare on Saturday. That might have changed a little bit now. ABC is in there with some programming, repeats of Desperate Housewives, which is the big hit right now, and so people said there’s an audience there, let’s go after it, but I think that our experience, at least in our world, found that audience earlier than perhaps others realized it was available.
NELSON: Now you mentioned Trading Spaces a moment ago. There were a number of things that started surfacing, other programs on other networks that had a big impact in this general space although they were taking a somewhat different approach. What were you thinking when Trading Spaces, for example, came on the air, because a huge hit? Was this a source of concern, or did it make you think maybe we’ve got to juice up the show and have this kind of reality programming? What was your response?
JABLIN: We had a number of reactions to Trading Spaces. Early on, people don’t remember this, but early on Trading Spaces had been developed for late afternoon on TLC because they had a daytime block that consisted of shows like Wedding Story, Baby Story, which were doing extremely well at the time against our programming which was all primarily craft and decorating oriented, but they had a problem because in primetime they had the adrenaline rush hour, which was primarily male and they had a block originally in the late afternoon, Prime Access, which was more our category, what’s referred to as hammers and nails, but then we put on This Old House and some other shows in that same block and it started doing far better than their block. So they didn’t know what to do and they developed Trading Spaces to be the bridge between the female-oriented shows during daytime, the sort of lifestyle shows, and the more male-oriented adrenaline rush hour shows of primetime. So Trading Spaces was developed with a very specific purpose and then I guess because they had a hole in their schedule they decided they would try it on Saturday night. It wasn’t an instant hit. It wasn’t like, what’s a recent example? Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on Bravo, when it first premiered it instantly had a huge rating, had a lot of promotion from the NBC affiliation with Bravo, but Trading Spaces didn’t do that. It built gradually but fairly quickly over about a year on Saturday night and in daytime, and then they knew they had a hit on their hands and as we saw the ratings grow and begin to take some ratings from our audience on Saturday night we obviously paid attention to it. So there were a number of responses. One, are we sure that our style of design show is the right style because Trading Spaces had a lot more frivolity, a lot less attention to the information part of things and much more entertainment. It was an hour and all of our shows except specials are half-hours. So we questioned all this, but the hallmark of HGTV over the years has been that we constantly question. We never believe we have it exactly right. We strive for that pragmatic perfection that we’re always questioning and so it was not unusual that we would say should we look at what we’re doing? But we looked at it a little bit in the context of what TLC had done with that show. Of course the story goes – a lot of people think we turned down Trading Spaces. That’s one of the great stories that people tell around here. The fact is we never turned down Trading Spaces because Trading Spaces didn’t exist to turn down. The show that we were unable to get was the British show that Trading Spaces was based on called Changing Rooms, and Kristen Jordan, in her role as the head of acquisitions and international distribution, had met the people who produced Changing Rooms back then, a guy named, I think, Peter Bazal. The company got sold and sold again and it’s now part of Endemol, but back then it was this relatively small production company and they had this show that was a big hit in England and we loved it and we wanted to get it for our International Hour, but they wouldn’t do the deal to license the British episodes, they wanted to license the format rights for an American version and at the time our original production only or licensing of existing shows policy wouldn’t let us do a format right deal. We couldn’t do it because it would have meant that we didn’t have complete control in perpetuity over that show. So we had to say politely, “You know what? We can’t do that deal. If you want to license Changing Rooms, we’ll do that deal.” So we had to say, “Can’t do it.” Well, TLC did do the format rights because that is something that they did a lot of at TLC and Discovery and still do. So what happened at HGTV was that Trading Spaces came on, took some audience from Saturday, so we reconfigured Saturday a little bit, but we said, “You know what? If there’s competition we’ll deal with it, we’ll try to go for the audience on other nights of the week.” We had some significant hits on our hands, not at the level Trading Spaces got to, but enough to absolutely keep us happy with our growing ratings, and in fact, even during that period where Trading Spaces grew in popularity, HGTV at the same time experienced growth as well, tremendous growth. So we felt that our strategy was sound, our programs were differentiated from what TLC was doing, and they built out other shows on the Trading Spaces theme – surprises, gimmicks, and we knew that that wasn’t what our audience was after. They wanted information. They wanted it in an entertaining manner but the key was to provide that benefit. We did begin to change the entertainment quotient of HGTV’s programming and sort of up it a little bit.
NELSON: Was that around that time?
JABLIN: It was going on anyway. Before Trading Spaces went on the air we had hired a program manager named Michael Dingley from TLC and Discovery, and he had worked on their daytime reality programming, and we hired him and he began to help us in an evolution of our shows to be more lifestyle and story driven. The first show that he developed was a show called Designing for the Sexes, which was where a designer named Michael Payne would sort of mediate between a husband and wife who were arguing over their decorating style. My reaction was it’s a little bit contrived, a little bit different from what we do, but you know what, let’s give it a try. It’s one show out of sixty that we do in any given year. Let’s try it. And we did and it quickly became our number one hit, and so based on that we developed more shows in that lifestyle, story-driven vein and by the time Trading Spaces went on the air we actually had almost an entire night, Thursday night, that was all this kind of show and Thursday had already become our number one night. It had been our worst performing night but it became our number one night within about two years. So we were already on track to do a shift, an evolution, if you will, from how-to and do-it-yourself – because we had DIY at the time and they were doing that kind of show, so we had to do something else – so we were already shifting to more story-driven and lifestyle programming. Trading Spaces just showed, in our way of looking at it, it showed that the audience for home improvement and decorating type shows would accept a little bit more production value, a little bit more pacing, a little bit more entertainment, if you will. As long as we had our information we felt that we could go even more in that direction, and we did. So that’s what Trading Spaces showed us, and we stuck with our game plan while doing a little bit of an evolution.
NELSON: And you also had going on at that time, through the ’90s and right up to now, in society at large, much more interest in the whole issue of shelter, nesting, your home, etc. So maybe there’s just more room for more stuff along these lines and somebody else was losing it on the ratings because there were people watching Trading Spaces or people watching you.
JABLIN: Well, that’s right. I think in society at large you had a lot of things going on. There was an explosion of traffic to Home Depot and Lowe’s. Home building and home remodeling was and still is going pretty robustly. Martha Stewart had come on the scene with her weekly show and then daily show. Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel, Target with its decorating at an affordable price – all of this had begun to essentially democratize home design, decorating, and allowed people to see that they could bring style at an affordable price and in a way that made their homes comfortable for them into their own living spaces and HGTV absolutely benefited from what was going on in society at large. Now we were part of that, too, but people ask is HGTV responsible for that. Well, no, we were part of being responsible but there’s a lot of credit that goes around for making people even more interested in making their homes better places, but certainly we played a role in that.
NELSON: I mean you did raise a lot of awareness about a lot of things that people might not have been exposed to before.
JABLIN: Yeah, I mean, who would have thought when HGTV started that within ten years it would be one of the top 20 networks in all of cable on any given night, and on Thursday night especially be a top ten network in cable with shows about looking for houses, doing home repair jobs, decorating. I mean, who would have thought it, and yet that’s the case.
NELSON: How about in terms of – we talked about Australia. I know you’ve had a lot of activity in Canada. You have three networks there.
JABLIN: Actually it’s four now. [three]
NELSON: It’s four now. I’m getting updated here. How is that programming, if at all, different from what you do in the States?
JABLIN: Well, we don’t necessarily control the programming on HGTV Canada. HGTV Canada is a separate network that we have a share of ownership in.
NELSON: Yeah, you can only have a share because of the Canadian laws.
JABLIN: You can only have a share because of Canadian laws. We try to work closely with the programming team in Canada but they do some of their own programming and we license some of that programming. They license a good deal of our programming, but they have shows that are unique to HGTV Canada. The main difference, I would say, is because HGTV Canada is working in a universe in Canada with fewer networks, they can afford to be a little more broad in how they go about doing the entertaining part of what they do and they can include a greater variety of shows. We can be much more focused on a particular category – home – and a particular style of doing our category – information in an entertaining way. So I would say that’s the difference. We can sort of do what we do in a much more carefully defined realm and they try to be a little bit more all-encompassing in the world of home.
NELSON: Do you feel, whether because of that or any other reason, pressure or does that raise an issue in terms of do we have to get even yet more entertaining because you’ve obviously migrated, evolved so that there’s more production values, more entertainment, but you still keep to that same basic philosophy of the three Is we talked about before, but do you feel the pressure to still up the bar in terms of entertainment? Just look at what’s going on on TV. Things get more and more crazy, if I can use that term, in terms of some of the stuff that goes on.
JABLIN: Well, the way we like to say it is there’s always going to be an evolution of HGTV and its programming. There always has to because the audience evolves and the environment that we’re working in changes and people’s expectations evolve. So this will never be a network or a brand where we say, okay, we’ve got it right, it’s this for eternity. However that said, there are touchstones about what we do and information is at the core of what we provide, and so while the level of entertainment, if you will, in a given show can ebb and flow given what the public taste is at the moment, the bedrock of what we do, the foundation, if you will, is information. We’ve got to be providing a benefit for the viewer because the world for a viewer is only going to become more – a lot of people use the word fragmented – I use the word personalize. They’ll be able to really personalize their media experience. They really can now with TiVos and other DVR devices, but even in the online world as more and more video becomes available online that you can just watch when you want to watch it, they’ll be able to spend their time the way they want to spend it. So in our world we know that we’ve got to make that time worthwhile. So information will always be that foundation, but I think we’ll continue to see an evolution of more what we call the three Es now – energy, excitement and entertainment in our programming to complement those three Is. This is always a balance. You can use that metaphor. It’s a continuum, but we know we need to be… if this is pure information over here, “this is the exact way that you put together a table, let’s say, from scratch”, where over here is pure entertainment – Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on ABC might be an example of pure entertainment – HGTV always will be right there in about the middle and that’s a very good place to be because you can get people who want the information and you can get people who want the entertainment and where they overlap is just a perfect spot for us.
NELSON: You were talking about that line between entertainment and information and you’re in the middle. Are there times that internally it’s not so clear and it pushes and pull? Does this really meet the objective of staying down that middle of the road?
JABLIN: Sure. The line between information and entertainment – actually it’s not a line, it’s the gray area where information and entertainment come together on HGTV – is always a tricky thing to try and negotiate. We have terrific program production managers who meet once a week and they spend most of that meeting looking at shows and debating where that show is on the continuum, but collectively they pretty much keep us where we need to be. The trick is, I think, as you look at what the television landscape has out there right now, as you said earlier, there is a lot of energy and excitement and entertainment out there and so from a program manager’s perspective and from a producer’s perspective you’re sort of thinking that’s the world that I exist in, I’ve got to make my show the same way. It’s a little hard to understand that HGTV wants things to be a certain way because that’s what HGTV is about. Regardless of what the rest of the television world is about, we need to stay true to what we are, always evolving, and the debates that we have is kind of the pace of the evolution and the amount of the three Es, if you will, energy, excitement and entertainment to infuse into those three Is.
NELSON: And do you, because you do have your audience feedback mechanisms, do they help you steer that course?
JABLIN: Yeah, now we have more sophisticated ways, if you will, I don’t know if they’re necessarily better, but they’re more sophisticated supposedly than just reading letters or hearing people in the grocery stop you if you’re wearing your HGTV sweatshirt and say how much they like it, or my mom telling me how much her friends like it. Now it’s ratings and demographic details on the ratings and MRI research, focus groups obviously, and we put all of that together with anecdotal evidence as well. We still read our website with its bulletin boards and such and we still read the mail and the emails, but yeah, we get a lot of feedback and the feedback generally is still extremely positive on the shows. Where I think people tend to begin to say you’re veering a little bit is when you try to put something overly contrived in there. It goes back to what we had years ago. Or we tried a little competition – when competition shows were all in vogue a few years ago we tried one and quickly the audience said we don’t need the competition. We just need you to be who you are, and sure if you want to give us a little more fun and excitement that’s great. Have a little more fun with it, but at heart we really want that great takeaway information that you provide.
NELSON: So they don’t want to see two people competing against who can sew up a pair of curtains faster?
JABLIN: No, they say we really don’t need that. Or even if it’s interesting to see, that’s not really what I go to HGTV to get. And so fine, that’s good. We like being known for being beneficial, having a takeaway but also having some fun as well.
NELSON: Now, just turning away from the TV screen for a moment because you’ve talked about the website and there are other outlets – maybe I shouldn’t say turning away from the TV screen, turning away from the linear programming… you’ve got the website, you’ve got VOD, who knows what else – how do you program for that and look at those media as somewhat different but as an extension of what you’re doing, an extension of the brand, an extension of the audience relationship?
JABLIN: Well, all the new media that we’re dealing with, VOD, video online, wireless delivery of content, whatever it might be, not a new medium but books, we’re aggressively expanding into books and we’re looking at potential of print publications, expanding into that area. If you really step back and say what we’ve done at HGTV is create a brand – now the primary way that people access our brand are the television network and our website right now. We didn’t know about the website when we started. We just had the television network. But let’s be really specific about what we mean by brand because that word is used all the time. By brand I mean a relationship. We have created a relationship with an audience, with a group of consumers, and so our job with any medium that’s available to us is to try to enhance that relationship and try to create a relationship with even more people. So when you look at it that way, then you can begin to develop strategies for whether it’s VOD, our website, video online, books, wireless, whatever it might be, what are you doing with those new and different media and whatever else may come along to help develop and enhance the relationship that you have? To help make your brand more powerful? If we look at it that way, I think that will allow us to use all of these new ways of reaching consumers to enhance HGTV and hopefully build businesses off of these new ways of reaching them. The business part of it is sometimes unclear in the early stages because of how you connect advertising, how you might do subscriptions, we don’t know, but we’re experimenting in all these areas and we’ll find out. We’re developing a lot of good information now, but what these businesses will be down the road, a little bit unclear right now as we sit here in February 2005, but I have no doubt that all of them will be used to enhance the relationship that we have with consumers.
NELSON: And how do you continue to create that relationship with new consumers as they come along, as they turn from kids to adults, as they buy houses, get concerned with that issue, how do reach that younger audience? I have no question that you probably are fantastic at holding on to your audience, that they stay with you. What do you do to bring in new people and create that relationship with new viewers?
JABLIN: That is sort of the prime question that we ask all the time around here because it’s great to have an audience but if they keep getting older, which they are, the entire population is aging at a very fast rate, or the segment that is older is growing at a fast rate I should say, the question is how do you infuse new viewers, customers into that brand relationship. You know what? The good news is that we have a category which is an extremely attractive category because everybody has to live somewhere and for the most part it is kind of our nature to want to make the place we live the most comfortable, the most inviting, the best, if you will, that it can be at whatever level of income and whatever you want to spend. So it’s kind of natural that there will be an interest in our category on the part of anyone, regardless of the age, at a certain point, let’s say once you get to your mid-20s. The job that we have is to develop content that’s attractive to that audience, and we believe we are, and to be able to get the word out to them that HGTV has something that they will find interesting and develop a relationship with them as well. Now I think broadband online represents a terrific opportunity to do that and we’re expanding our marketing online. We’re actually talking about, well we are expanding our video offerings online, but we’re even talking about premiering shows in the online world because that might be the exact way to reach a whole new group of consumers that we’re not necessarily reaching through the television network as it exists today, or our website or even through some of our standard marketing. So that’s just one way in which we’re talking about reaching that younger audience.
NELSON: When you use broadband video online, this is a different medium. You talked about previewing programs on there, but it’s really such a short attention span medium, how do you program, so to speak, that as opposed to the half-hours that you put on TV?
JABLIN: Well, a lot of our content, fortunately, does break down into fairly watchable short segments online. Whether people will only watch up to three minutes online or whether they’ll end up watching 30 minutes or 60 or 90 or an entire movie I think remains to be seen. My personal view of it all is that eventually you’ll have screens in your home that will be fed by a variety of media – satellite, cable, DSL lines, cable modem, online access, essentially, and you really won’t care where the content’s coming from, whether it comes from your cable system, from the cable channels on the system, or from the cable modem, for example. You just want a nice interface that allows you to get to what you want to watch and eventually the video quality that we stream online will be as good as what you’re seeing in high definition, let’s say, but certainly as good as what you’re seeing on digital cable. It already is on HGTV’s website in many cases. So, I don’t think it will matter at some point. Now when that is is up for debate, but the point for us right now is we’ve got to recognize that that world is likely to come, we’ve got to be able to be a presence in that world so that when people really can personalize their media experience we will be their source of information and entertainment in the world of home and that goes for our other brands as well.
NELSON: And how about transitioning to HDTV?
JABLIN: Well, that’s a very interesting situation because technically, of course, the cable systems and the satellite systems can deliver our feed in only one way at one time, so for instance the non-HD, the standard definition, is what people are watching now. If we want to go into high definition, which we do, we would have to have a completely separate channel for them to see it in high definition. So channel capacity is an issue in that. Now that said, we here do believe that high definition is going to be the way consumers will want to watch their television because it’s really good. It would be the analogy of maybe 40 years ago to if you watched The Beverly Hillbillies in black and white and then it was coming on in color, why wouldn’t you want to watch it in color? It’s just a better way to watch something. The same is true for high definition so we are right now aggressively ramping up high definition production, so while nobody can see it at the moment it will be ready when we do enter the world of high definition, hopefully within sometime in early 2006.
NELSON: So that’s definitely on its way?
JABLIN: Yeah, we’re going out there to try to do it.
NELSON: Other than just looking better, is there a way with your informational programming where it really enhances the information?
JABLIN: Well, I think because we work in a world of essentially… a visual world – décor, home design, home construction – it’s all very visual and the visuals of it are part of the experience, the better you can display it I assume the more enriching the experience will be.
NELSON: In terms of, I know you’re still a young guy and you still have many years here, presumably, but what do you think to date your contribution has been, your legacy? How have you changed this place? And I know you haven’t done this by yourself, I’m not implying that. I’m just saying what has your contribution been, do you feel?
JABLIN: I think my personal contribution has been to work with a group of really good people and help to synthesize many creative ideas and creative endeavors and keep us focused on what our strategy should be and just keep questioning why we do things against that strategy, and to help us evolve when the time comes to evolve which is just continual, but to let people know that change can be good and is necessary for any business or brand. The other thing that I hope I’m doing is helping us understand that we do have a brand. We are not just a television network and help us understand that unlike other television networks, in fact, unlike almost every other television network, we cannot change our subject matter. We are Home and Garden. We’re HGTV. Food Network will always be food. Now, we can do a lot of variety within those categories, but unlike a broadcast network who might be doing, let’s say, a show like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which is in the home makeover category, once the ratings for that go down, decline, they’ll go onto something else. It doesn’t matter what the subject is.
NELSON: They could do a western.
JABLIN: They can do a western. We can’t do that. We can’t go through the cycles of genres that television has always gone through where dramas are hot for five years and everybody says comedies are dead, well, we all know they never are. It just takes one hit comedy and then suddenly comedies are popular again. We can’t do that. We always must be focused on the category of home. So, I think part of my responsibility has been to say let’s stay focused, this is a big category, let’s not worry about perhaps somebody else dabbling in our category because they won’t stay in it. Now we do have to worry that somebody else might start a whole channel but that’s kind of hard to do, and with channel capacity being the way it is it’s nearly impossible these days. So I’d say that’s a contribution, too. Focus would be the way that I would summarize it. But you know what? I think the original group of executives by and large should get credit for coming up with the core values that really inform the sensibility of this place and I think that I’d have to take greatest pride in being a part of coming up with that – clarity in communication, shared responsibility, openness, diversity, it goes on… balance and humor. This is a great set of attributes that really can, if you apply them to what we do every day, whether it be daily decisions or big issues that we face, help you get through.
NELSON: And how about the network itself? What has been its contribution to the television industry?
JABLIN: If you go back, and it’s kind of hard to now, to when HGTV started, there really wasn’t the emphasis on original programming for a network like ours that there is today, so I think we helped shift the emphasis in cable to original. We helped with that, we didn’t do it ourselves. The other thing I think we’ve done is shown people that you can take what was in some cases criticized as too narrow a niche and proven that if you do it right, if you think broadly about your niche – we call it a category – or your subject matter, you can create a network, a brand, that will resonate in a far greater way than anybody ever thought was possible, and actually be one of the leading networks in the United States and compete against networks that program entertainment or sports or cartoons or reality programming, in the sort of negative sense of reality programming. I think that that’s an incredible contribution because it says you can do good programming that is actually respectful of an audience, that delivers takeaway information of benefit to viewers, and do it in a way that is successful and popular, and that’s a great feeling to have been associated with that.
I know this is an interview with four people I guess we’re doing, but if we didn’t emphasize it enough, you just have to emphasize what a communal effort this is. It gets down to the details. If the tapes aren’t loaded properly into the machines and if the people don’t enter log numbers correctly in the log it all falls apart. If the satellites aren’t working properly… to me, honestly, it’s amazing it all functions almost perfectly everyday. It’s extraordinary and it’s just the result of so many people – now 700 here in Knoxville alone, I think it is – doing what they do with great attention to detail and with great, I think, pride in what they do every single day. That does get forgotten sometimes when we talk about the grand what have we done for television ideas and tell the great stories of how HGTV got started, but the fact is that the reason it’s so successful is not just a brilliant idea from Ken Lowe and terrific execution by a lot of good, talented, creative people, but it’s also just the day-to-day way that people go about doing their jobs around here so well. That probably is true in a lot of places but I bet there are not as many places where people do what they do so well and enjoy it as much as they do, and that’s another great feeling for what we put together here.