Interview Date: Friday February 04, 2005
Interviewer: Steve Nelson
Collection: Legacy Collection
NELSON: Ed Spray, as we sit here today you are recently retired as president of Scripps Networks, but we want to sort of look back at your career, but also at the growth of this place. So let’s just start, if we could, briefly and talk about young Ed Spray, where you came from. Not that you’re not young now.
SPRAY: I understand. I came from a small town in Indiana, Seymour, Indiana, which has the distinction of being the home of John Cougar Mellencamp. That’s his “small town” in the song, and I used to joke about the fact that we had three things out of Seymour: one, of course was me, John Mellencamp, and the third was the largest toxic waste dump in the United States, which was true. So that’s where I came from.
NELSON: As a youngster, I assume you watched TV?
SPRAY: Well, I am of that certain age that I still remember radio and I remember television coming in.
NELSON: As do I.
SPRAY: And was fascinated by it, and fascinated by that window on the world. You played in that theater of the mind with radio and you envisioned all these wonderful things happening, and then all of the sudden there is television and it is in reality in front of you – disappointing in many ways and exciting in other ways. I remember those early programs. Captain Video and His Video Rangers, and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet – all those programs.
NELSON: There are probably not too many people who can name those. Now I could name those because I saw them.
SPRAY: You’re not that old.
NELSON: Oh, no, Captain Video from the Flying Dutchman theme?
SPRAY: Oh, yes, you got it. That’s it.
NELSON: Yes, I know them well. So that was kind of your early TV influences. I don’t know whether Howdy Doody was one of your…
SPRAY: Yes, well, see, I was born in 1941, so in the late ’40s you begin to think of what was going on, and cowboys of course – Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers – you wanted to be a cowboy, and then at some point I crossed over to wanting to be a pilot or an astronaut, I guess. And it’s kind of weird, strange in a way, because I used to build little control rooms in the basement – I’d take a cardboard box and then put a piece of white paper in front of it and draw a TV screen, like five or six of them, and then I’d fly my way to Mars or Venus or someplace like that in my imagination, and years later I ended up being a live television director and there I was sitting in a control room, darkened with screens in front of me looking things like…
NELSON: Lots of knobs.
SPRAY: I sat there one day and thought, my goodness, this is what I did as a kid.
NELSON: But as a kid, did you have any expectation that TV was more than an entertainment source, a fantasy, as opposed to I want to do this when I grow up?
SPRAY: I had an “I want to do it” type attitude. I wanted to know how they did it, at first, and then I got that feeling that I’d like to do this. Then you get to a point – especially when you’re a teenager or in college where you think, oh, I can do this, there’s nothing to it, just let me at it.
NELSON: Were you sort of generally a tinkerer or a builder, hobbyist kind of guy?
SPRAY: Yes, I was into amateur radio and things like that. Early on, I wasn’t much of a content person. I was more technical and production oriented, and I had to pretty much reeducate myself to get into content because my interest wasn’t there. It is now, but it wasn’t in those days.
NELSON: Now growing up, you talked about being a teenager, I assume you went off to college somewhere?
NELSON: And where was that?
SPRAY: Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.
NELSON: And what did you study there?
SPRAY: At that time it was called Radio and TV. That was it.
NELSON: So in fact, you really did start down that career path fairly early.
SPRAY: Yes, from the beginning. I remember the first time I was on campus, as I guess a junior in high school, looking at the big tower and they gave us a tour through the little studios they had, which was not any more than a Quonset hut but it was so stimulating to see, oh, this is what it’s like on the other side. After looking at the window from the viewer’s side and then going on the other side, it even got more interesting to me then.
NELSON: And so you got out of college. What was your first job? Did you go right into the TV business?
SPRAY: Well, when I got out of college, yes, I did. I went to work at WISH TV in Indianapolis, Indiana where I was a weekend camera operator and a film editor during the week and I had the dubious distinction on one particular day of having to – I edited all the early shows, when we had movies in the afternoon. I edited the early shows to time and then put in commercial breaks. So I went in one morning and the program manager said, “Well, the President’s going to speak today at 4:00” or something, whatever time it was, “so you’re going to have to shorten the movie to an hour and a half instead of two hours. I said, “No problem, I’ll find that.” He came back later and he said, “Well, he’s going to speak a little longer than that.” This is an example of butchery and I understand why the directors in the country finally go upset.
NELSON: Do you remember what the movie was?
SPRAY: “The Legend of Jesse James.”: I cut it to an hour and I put commercials in it. Now, how’d you do that? I took out all the action sequences. I kept the dialogue, no action. So Jesse James was all talk and no action. Tyrone Power and I forget who was in there.
NELSON: Well, I guess you wouldn’t have a great future in Hollywood with no action sequences.
SPRAY: No, no, not at all.
NELSON: Probably the viewers might have preferred leave the action sequences and you can forget the dialogue. Where did your career go from there, from your daytime editing job?
SPRAY: I went into the Air Force for awhile, for six months, as a reservist. This was just before Vietnam and right after the Cuban Missile Crisis – it was after the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis and pre-Vietnam, that was the whole period I was in. I guess my original thought was to get out and work and so I went to work at WISH-TV, as I mentioned, and then I had to deal with the draft because I was either going to be drafted or I was going to go in an enlist, so I enlisted. When I came out, I decided, well, as long as I’m young I want to get a master’s degree because I think I’d like to teach because I was an assistant as an undergrad, and then a graduate assistant, ultimately. I just said, to myself, well, it would be a good thing to do. At that time there were no Ph.D.s in communications. Master’s degree was the highest degree you could get. So I said, I’ll prepare myself for the future, I’ll get a master’s degree and then if nothing else works out I’ll teach because I love to do that.
NELSON: This was still in Indiana?
SPRAY: This was in Indiana, yes. So I did, I went back and got my master’s degree. I remember my first job at WMAQ, my first real job, at WMAQ in Chicago, the program manager said to me, I said something about I’ve got a master’s degree, and he said, “Yes, that and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee in this business, kid.” One of those typical type stories. It turns out that a master’s degree doesn’t mean anything anymore. You’ve got to be a Ph.D. now if you’re considered a legitimate academician.
NELSON: From a teaching standpoint, yes. Obviously from a TV production standpoint they didn’t care.
SPRAY: Then it was called Radio and Television, now it’s called Communications, of course.
NELSON: So how did you wind up at MAQ in Chicago because you finally left Indiana? Other than going into the service it seems like you were still based in Indiana. Not that far, but Chicago is a very different environment.
SPRAY: Yes, much bigger than Indianapolis, too. I guess it was a chance meeting. What happened was I was directing an interview just like this. It was a two-person interview in the studio at the public station there and the guest happened to be the program manager of WMAQ, the NBC owned station in Chicago. So as the guest finished, the professor who I was working with introduced me to him and at that time I was working on my master’s dissertation and it was about early pay television. The Zenith Radio Corporation did an experiment in the early ’50s called Phone-a-vision – I don’t know if you remember that – and it was the real predecessor of pay-per-view and video-on-demand and all of that, although very antiquated as you would imagine back in 1951, ’52, ’53, whenever.
NELSON: Where you could order?
SPRAY: It wasn’t really so much on-demand. I’m not sure this is that interesting, but the film studios were not releasing their product to television because they saw television as a competitor, so the idea was let’s go and buy some film packages and put that on, scramble the signal and then you call in and we’ll send the sync signal through the telephone lines so that you can watch it. Otherwise it’s going to be all jumbled and crosswise. That was the idea. Particularly if you had a Zenith television it was all set up so you could plug into it. Anyway, that really is beside the point, but what it did was to get me interested in going to Chicago to interview all the folks at Zenith. So at the end of this interview – I’m flashing back now – the professor said, “Oh, Ed’s working on a master’s degree and is going to be in Chicago, and the program manager said, “Well, stop by and see me.” I thought, hot dog! Here we go. And I did and it led into a summer replacement job for me there and that led into a full-time job and I spent almost nine years with NBC then, after that.
NELSON: Did your working on this thesis about pay television, did you sort of come to the personal conclusion that maybe this is something to get involved with even though it was obviously very rudimentary at the time?
SPRAY: Oh yes, I did, because I saw the potential of it. HBO, essentially, was what they were trying to create back in the ’50s. I mean, HBO you don’t order it up, it’s there and you know it starts at 8:00 or 10:00 or whatever and you just subscribe to it. Well, that’s what they were trying to do. They ran the movies at certain set times, and I saw the potential. I’m talking about pay TV now, commercial TV of course already was a significant thing. But at the same time, Pat Weaver – Sylvester “Pat” Weaver – started the Today Show and was an NBC executive and did all those great things, left NBC and took over, I’m not sure he did immediately, but he took over subscription television in Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, as a matter of fact – this is a little known anecdote about that move to… I’m sorry, the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, primarily because of the attraction of in-home viewing and they could get a box office at home and people would watch them play. Now there were other factors there too, but that was something. Sylvester Weaver went out here seeing a potential also. Now, what happened was that the technology really wasn’t there yet, number one. Number two, there was so much pressure from the broadcast industry that anybody in pay television, or subscription television as it was called back then, was the enemy, much as cable was the enemy to broadcasters recently, or not so much recently, but historically.
NELSON: Historically, especially then.
SPRAY: So I just watched that all the way through my college career and that’s why I ended up writing my dissertation on that and my thesis, and maintained an interest all along throughout my broadcasting career.
NELSON: So you went to MAQ. What were your responsibilities there?
SPRAY: I was a television director. I started as an associate director and then became a television director and directed numerous programs, the most significant of which was the 10:00 PM News – it was a Midwest time zone, it was the 10:00 PM News – and it was Floyd Kalber’s news. Floyd Kalber was a newscaster and it was the number one rated news in that market, and at that time, the number one rated news in the entire country. I’d puff up and say, “I direct the number one newscast,” but that was what it was. It was directing. It was sitting in there looking at those little boxes again and calling the shots, and after awhile that became routine and I said, “Gee, I’d like to do some more stuff.” So then I started producing and ended up as “a producer/director” and was doing more producing than I was directing and doing documentaries, doing specials, doing sporting events, things like that, at NBC. Eventually, was hired by WBBM, the CBS station, to become program manager.
NELSON: So you came off this job directing the number one newscast, became a producer, went to BBM. Why did you make that move? How did your job change there? Or was it just a matter of, hey, they gave you more money?
SPRAY: Well, several things happened. No, it wasn’t that much more money. I had expected more but it wasn’t that much more. Several things happened, one of which was that the station where I was working was cutting back. There was a management change, as usually motivates a lot of people to either come or go, and the station was doing a lot of local documentaries and specials and you may remember the primetime access rule? Early on you had to produce local programming in those access time periods before syndication came along and filled it up, and so we had a lot of production going on, and I think we filled somewhere in the neighborhood of… I shouldn’t venture a guess at WMAQ, but we were filling a lot of that and eventually that went away because syndication came along and the FCC relaxed on that. So local production was going away and I wanted to produce. That’s where I got my most kicks. The last thing I produced at NBC was a documentary on the energy crisis, which would have been in 1972-’73.
NELSON: Yes, I think the oil embargo was ’73, so it was right around that time.
SPRAY: Yes, somewhere in that range there. It just happened that it took a year to produce it and I had David Hartman host it, which I also later claimed that I got him into television because he later became the host of Good Morning, America, as you know. But I was very fortunate and the energy crisis got worse and worse and worse as it went along but at the time it got on the air it was right at its zenith. So the program got all kinds of press coverage and I won a local Emmy award with it. But the station, that was the last one they wanted to do. They didn’t want to do any more.
NELSON: Even with those accolades? Because they were just moving in another direction?
SPRAY: Yes, they were just moving in a different direction. At the same time, WBBM was on the rise trying to pull themselves up to do things and local programming is one way to do that if you’re in a market. There’s a certain attraction to that. And so they read the accolades and eventually I talked to them of course and I moved to WBBM. Then I spent the next 16 years with CBS in various positions.
NELSON: Was most of that still local production, or you moved out of that at some point? You say CBS, but still working at the affiliate level?
SPRAY: I was program manager and there was a director of broadcasting above me who was the chief programming officer, if you will, but my initial job was to build a production unit so we could do more local productions and hire people. It was great, and actually, this foreshadowed again HGTV and Scripps because we put together a little production unit – by little I’d say maybe there was ten or twelve of us in the unit and I managed it – and we produced local programs. We produced everything from a coach’s show on the weekend, which everybody has, still does, to full-blown one-hour dramas and documentaries on everything from hospital rights, patient’s rights to legal rights and just so many things.
NELSON: Just to stop you for a second, the dramas are a little unusual in that… local documentaries, you certainly expect that. What did you do in the way of dramas? That really is a good storytelling background to have.
SPRAY: Again, several things happened. I feel like I’ve been on the brink of things all along. I’ve been fortunate to do that because when I was at MAQ everything was film. It wasn’t videotape. There was 2-inch tape, of course, in the studio, but there was nothing remote unless you had a full-blown remote unit. But the change was happening to going from film to electronic journalism, electronic recording of things, small mini-cam type things. So that made things more mobile, number one. It made it cheaper also because you didn’t have to pay for the film and certainly the editing was a lot cheaper. So that was happening at the same time, so that gave us a lot of flexibility to begin producing in the field as opposed to two chairs and a coffee table in front of a psyche or something, and we took full advantage of that. The other thing that was happening was that, as I mentioned earlier, WBBM was trying to make a name in the market. They’d been strong once before and as most stations do there is the cycle and they were trying to come back very strong so they poured a lot of money into news and into local programming, and that was happening at the same time. A third thing, which was interesting about the drama, is the 800 numbers were just coming into use, or the 900 numbers, which ultimately became all sex, phone sex…
NELSON: But that wasn’t their intention, obviously.
SPRAY: That wasn’t the intention then. We were trying to find something that we could use that, again to get local involvement with the community so you could call up and give us your vote or something. So we produced a one-hour drama on Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was the player back in the ’20s with the Chicago – they called them Black Sox because of the scandal – and he was banned from baseball for life because they thought he was guilty of throwing the game and there’s always been a question ever since – was he guilty or was he not? So we did a script on the trial of Shoeless Joe Jackson, and that’s what it was. We populated a courtroom. We used one of the same courtrooms that existed in the ’20s – actual location.
NELSON: So it had that look.
SPRAY: It had that look to it, and then we presented the case for the prosecution and the defense and then we asked people to call in – is Joe guilty or is he innocent? AT&T or whoever was serving the Chicago area wanted to use this so they put in all kinds of lines and we said, “Well, we’re going to run this from 8:00 to 9:00,” I guess it was, and then it went back to network, from 10:00 to 10:30 was the local news, and at 10:30 we’d come back on and give the results. Well, it blew the lines out. You’ve heard your stories, this literally did because the 900 numbers were not equipped to handle the volume of what we had, but again, this contributed to the experience of my career in building some experience in knowing how things happen and positioning things and how people respond. So that’s where the drama came along.
NELSON: Just parenthetically, did you actually total a result or did the lines just break down totally?
SPRAY: No, we totaled what we had.
NELSON: And the result was?
NELSON: Innocent, okay, I’m a big baseball fan, so I just was wondering because that issue has come up again recently.
SPRAY: Oh, has it?
NELSON: Yes, I think that issue will never go away.
SPRAY: Well, we did our best in writing the script to make it balanced and then let the viewer decide, and as I recall he came off innocent.
NELSON: Okay, putting that aside, ultimately of course, you left BBM and where did you go from there? You were there for you said 16 years?
SPRAY: No, I was with CBS for 16 years. I was only at BBM for about eight years or nine years, so I eventually moved up to director of programming, station manager – I never ran the station, I had no ambition to be a general manager or a president or anything. I wanted to do production. Eventually, a man named Frank Gardner, whose name you will hear as you talk about Scripps, said, “Why don’t you come out to LA?” He was running KCBS at that time – “Why don’t you come out and become my program director?” and so I said, “Okay,” and I did. It wasn’t an easy choice; I had kids and all that. We had to move to LA and all that, but to make a long story short, I did.
NELSON Well, it’s a major station.
SPRAY: Yes, how many times do you get an opportunity to do that? But at the same time, they were offering me the vice-president’s position of programming for at that time five CBS owned stations. This was when the FCC said you could only have five UHF stations. So I was also doing double-duty then. I was VP of programming for the five stations plus I was programming KCBS in Los Angeles, and that was when my wife said, “Hey, you’re either going to be home more or this marriage is over. Pick one or the other,” she said, and so I picked the KCBS job, and eventually, I was in LA for almost another eight years, but I was in the programming position for four or five, and eventually became VP for development because again, this is getting very technical for a lot of folks, I’m sure, but the financial interest rules, the fin-syn rules, there was a goodnight date, or whatever they called it, sun-setting, and so the idea was we could begin to own our own programming again. A network owned group could own its own programming.
NELSON: Which had been a huge issue in the broadcast business.
SPRAY: So I came in as the person to develop programs for when the fin-syn rules went away. Well, unfortunately the fin-syn rules didn’t go away as fast as people had hoped and another situation happened. Larry Tisch became head of CBS and there was a whole level of management, middle management, that was cut out and I was one of those people cut out and they had no need to do anymore development. But before that – I’m getting ahead of my story – I was at KCBS as programming head for about four years before I moved into the development job. That’s where I really learned to program. I learned production before but there’s a difference between production and programming, clearly. I’d been at CBS in Chicago where we were the number one station. We couldn’t do anything wrong. We’d put anything on and the lead-in, the flow, everything would help us out. We had a promotion campaign going, everything was great. I moved out there and it was just the opposite. They were number six in a nine station market, or something like that, so we had to pull it up. That’s when I learned to program. That’s when I really learned…
NELSON: You had talked about that earlier, about educating yourself on content.
SPRAY: What would people respond to?
NELSON: Can you give me an example of something that you did that you said, now I’m getting it. This is something I feel good about that had a good audience response?
SPRAY: People’s Court. I bought People’s Court and put it on the air, along with Divorce Court. This was when court shows were just beginning when People’s Court was becoming the thing. The other one– which some people think it’s a compliment, some people say you should not have done it– was I was the first person to buy the Geraldo Rivera Show and put it into a national market, and the link was there – whether it was true or not, things were simpler then, or at least it seemed like they were – you thought… the LA market… huge Hispanic population… Geraldo Rivera… very well-known, that this would make a nice link, and it did, it really did. So there I found out something about targeted programming. A little bit of an introduction to niche, as the case may be.
NELSON: As opposed to the broadcast you’d been involved with where you’re trying to reach an entire market.
SPRAY: That’s right. And the other thing that we did there which gave me a great deal of experience is that we had an evening special every night that was called Two on the Town, and what it was is we would go out to locations all over LA. It was like the old evening PM Magazine concept, only we did it all 100% original from our station. We had a staff of around 45 to 50 people with three or four crews. It was wonderful for somebody that was interested in production. But then again, as I alluded to earlier, things began to change and there was less and less local production and it became more and more syndication. So by the time that I left CBS, which was I guess, 1990-1991, there really wasn’t much local programming left at local stations except news, local news, and that’s fine. That should be there, but there was nothing else.
NELSON: And you’d been there and done that.
SPRAY: I’d been there and done that. Is this getting too detailed for you?
NELSON: No, because this is setting us up for…
SPRAY: Because I’m going a long way on my own personal thing here.
NELSON: This is about you. This is your life.
SPRAY: Let’s see. Where was I?
NELSON: So the local production is being cut out. I assume that Two on the Town with that kind of…
SPRAY: Oh yes, in one day I remember I had to fire 47 people. I had to deliver the news that, “look, we can’t do this show anymore”, and you really think about things when… sure, when you’re putting programs on you’re affecting hundreds and thousands and millions of lives, but when you’re looking at the people who make the programs and say, “Hey, we’re not doing this anymore,” you’ve got 47 people with their families and all of that, and you think, oh my gosh, this is a significant thing to be going through. So anyway, I left, helped along by Larry Tisch and the management at corporate at that time, and then decided to get back into production in LA. Well, I don’t need to tell you or anybody else that I was approaching 50 at that time and being 50, in LA which was a young person’s market, and trying to get back into production was a thing that was just not going to happen, and it took me a while to realize that. But I didn’t want to go back into broadcasting because I’d been there, done that. I didn’t want to go into syndication because there wasn’t that much excitement to it. So that’s when I turned back to education and through a long convoluted way that I don’t think would be of interest to anybody, ended up at Syracuse University teaching in the Newhouse School for two years. I didn’t know it was two years at the time because I had made the decision to leave broadcasting. I had never really worked in cable, so I didn’t know that much about cable. I was all broadcasting.
NELSON: But leave television.
SPRAY: Leaving television, thank you, to go back into what I wanted to do initially, and why I’d gotten my master’s degree in the first place, was to teach. And I did and at Syracuse I was on a tenure track and they named me an associate professor and they were just wonderful, it is one of the best schools in the country.
NELSON: Were you teaching production, programming, that whole area?
SPRAY: Yes, the same thing that I’d worked in. Then the phone rang one day and it was Frank Gardner again, the name from Scripps, who did his own time moving around from station to station and ended up at Scripps and had then made the acquaintance with Ken Lowe – and there’s a whole story that goes there that I’m sure Ken can tell you – and he called me up and said, “Hey, we want to start a cable network and I think you’re the kind of guy that we’re looking for.” And I said, “Why would I be? I don’t know anything about cable.” He said, “Well, we want to put a network on that’s truly original. We want to produce shows, we want to schedule shows, we want to do it in a way that hasn’t been done before, at least in this particular category, and you’ve got that kind of experience and we’d like to have you come join us.”
NELSON: You’re at Syracuse and suddenly this guy comes up and approaches you about this new network that they’re going to start. So just tell me what he said and what your reaction to that was.
SPRAY: Well, the guy who approached me was Frank Gardner who was the same person who approached me to go to Los Angeles from Chicago because he had been running the CBS station in LA. So he knew of my background and we’d also worked together for a couple of years in Chicago because he was news director at one point when I was program director. So we knew each other and he knew what I’d done and what I hadn’t done, and so he said to Ken Lowe– at least this is what they told me later– that what we need is an old time program director. He said “old time” and the word “old” wasn’t an age discrimination thing, he meant old in the sense that when local stations used to do production, somebody who knew how to do that because now the programming people who were coming up were just scheduling shows. They weren’t actually producing the shows. That, of course, is a talent too, scheduling the shows. I don’t mean to demean that in any way.
NELSON: Right, but that’s not what they were looking for.
SPRAY: That’s not what they were looking for. Well, they were and they weren’t. They were looking for somebody who had a combination. Somebody who could produce the shows or knew how to produce, how to get it done, and also how to put it together in programming so we had flow and take advantage of all the programming tricks that you can take advantage of.
NELSON: You had that background, but Frank is somebody that you’d known for years, you’d gone out to LA and that obviously had worked out very well, but were you really ready to leave Syracuse? You’d sort of made this career change, “I’m now going to pursue my original goal of being in academia”.
SPRAY: I’d made that career change and it was clear. I was on a tenured track and everything, and as an associate professor – I wasn’t an instructor or anything, I was an associate professor. I was just one step below a professor and I was going for it, and then this came along and first of all I said, “You guys are crazy. What does Scripps know about cable? You’ve never had cable network.” They owned cable systems but never started a network or anything like that, that’s number one. Secondly, it was one of those timing things. The Federal Communications had just clamped down on the cable industry and said that you cannot raise your rates more than a certain percentage because they felt that the cable industry had been a little too aggressive in their rates and such. So I was saying to Frank, “Frank, they’re just clamping down on the cable industry. How are you going to get something started?” He said, “Just come down to Cincinnati. Let us show you what we’re going to do.” So I went down there and I got the pitch that Ken Lowe had been doing all over the country prior to that, which ended up with him talking about home and garden and how much money was spent in the home and garden category and it ended up with the finale where he had these shelves all around the room and they had blankets over them. At the end he said, “Now if you don’t believe that this is not an area to go into, look at this,” and he pulled the sheets off and there were magazine racks of all the magazines that were being published in the home and garden category. Well, you know, it’s huge! You say to yourself, there might be something here! So, it got my adrenaline going and so I thought, well… we’d also had 192 inches of snow in Syracuse that year… but it got my adrenaline going and I said, well, you know, I’m 50-years-old, 51, something like that, there’s room enough to do something new. Even if this doesn’t work out, which the odds were that it wouldn’t work out, I figured in two years I’ll go back to teaching. Syracuse will hopefully take me back, if not, I’ll be able to find someplace else because now I have not only broadcasting experience but I’ll have some cable experience.
NELSON: Did you take a leave or did you actually just resign your position?
SPRAY: I resigned.
NELSON: So you stepped out there, took the entrepreneurial risk.
SPRAY: Well, I was like a lot of other people, I followed Ken Lowe and he’s a pied piper.
NELSON: His presentation must have been powerful because it affected a lot of people. I’ll ask him about that.
SPRAY: Well, he was onto something. Clearly he was onto something.
NELSON: So you said okay, after some deliberation, obviously, and packed up your bags.
SPRAY: I said I had to have a two year guaranteed contract, though, because I didn’t want to leave for a year and then have them decide not to launch. So I knew I had two years of security, but that was it.
NELSON: So how far in advance of the launch was this because obviously before they launched they had to get a lot of programming together?
SPRAY: Approximately nine months. It was in April of 1994 and I think I was around the sixth person hired, but as Burton Jablin tells it he was the eighth person, but he went to work two weeks before I did because I had to finish classes, so he was technically the sixth person hired and I became the eighth or ninth person hired. We’ve argued that for ten years, you know, who’s first? It was just us and Ken, Susan Packard, Mark Hale and Jim Clayton, who was here before. Therein is another story because one of the smart things that Ken and Frank did was to find a production company that was already doing programs similar to this, not exactly what we were doing, and again, a timing thing. Ross Bagwell, who had started Cinetel Productions here in Knoxville with the idea of producing programs on a budget because he saw that cable could not afford what broadcasting afforded, so he figured out ways to do things that were still quality but didn’t have the cost of what you would have in LA or New York or Chicago. He was interested in selling. So they saw the potential there of buying immediately an already existing production company so that we could go the next day, essentially, go into production. So that was another fortuitous thing that happened and that’s how we ended up in Knoxville because this company was available and the people in this company knew what they were doing. They had expertise that we didn’t have in many areas.
NELSON: From a production standpoint?
SPRAY: Primarily a production, well, content too, but primarily production.
NELSON: You said they were doing some things that were similar.
SPRAY: We get a lot of credit, Home and Garden gets a lot of credit for starting this. We didn’t start it. Clearly it started with PBS. The icons are This Old House and Victory Garden and the sewing shows on Saturday afternoons, and after that Discovery was doing afternoon crafting shows and they were doing little afternoon kind of decorating shows, not as heavy as we went into it. But this particular company, Cinetel, that we bought, produced most of those shows. They were also producing a show for A&E called America’s Castles, which was tours of big homes, so that was right in our category too. So we bought a ready-made production company with people who knew what they were doing and that’s one of the reasons that we were able to turn it around and get it on the air so quickly.
NELSON: So you came in there in April, I think you went on the air in December, and in that time you had to build up a library of original programming to get ready to go on the air, so that must have been a pretty frantic nine months.
SPRAY: It was, it was, and we joke about it, but it’s also probably the most fun that all of us ever had in our careers – not necessarily in our lives, but in our careers, you know – because of the hard work and also because of the payoff at the end.
NELSON: Was there anything, I know over time programming changes, was there anything that you recall from that early slate of programming that you thought, yes, we’re really hitting it here – because obviously you’ve just got to get stuff to get on the air, but then there’s some stuff out of that you can say, well, there was a couple of gems in the middle of this.
SPRAY: Well, it’s interesting because… speaking for myself now, the way I approached it – Ken and Frank may have thought of it in different ways, so I’m not speaking for them – the way I approached it is, well, this is going to be quite a thing to find the amount of programming, but I also knew that PBS stations were doing things like this around the country. I didn’t know whether we could get This Old House, and we couldn’t, they wouldn’t sell to us initially, eventually we did, but we could only go around and pick up some of these other shows that were on PBS stations. There were also still a number of shows that were being produced on the local level at commercial broadcast stations, one of them was called House Doctor at the ABC station in San Francisco, Ron Hazleton was the host of it, and that was still going strong because it was a remodeling show and repair show. I thought, we’ll find other shows like these and then we’ll also produce about the same number. What happened was there was nothing to find. The shows, when we went out there, were not that good, hosted by people who you really had trouble watching or listening to as the case may be. One lady had a speech impediment and she was teaching sewing, and she knew everything there was to know about that but she had a speech impediment. We thought, oh, we’ve got our sewing show, until we found this out. So we had to make tough decisions like that about who’s the talent going to be, but back to my point – there was nothing there. So the fact that we had to do so much original production was a necessity because there wasn’t anything there. The only thing that existed was controlled by our competitors, which was Discovery, and they had hours and hours of tapes that they’d done in the afternoon produced by our company now but we couldn’t use them because they belonged to Discovery and they also were – what should I say? – not exactly where we wanted to go, although a lot of it was the same stuff.
NELSON: Cinetel, which was now yours, was that still doing work for Discovery? They had some kind of contract with them?
SPRAY: Oh, yes, as a matter of fact we continued to do that for about two years, the same programming for Discovery while we were building our network. Well, it didn’t take long for Discovery to say, “Hey, now wait a minute here. We’re not going to have a competitor coming into our field,” or certainly their daytime field, we certainly weren’t in the nighttime Discovery categories, but daytime, “We’re not going to buy our programs from them, too!” America’s Castles stayed on A&E for a number of years, three or four more years and they ran out of castles to go to and they’d reran them enough, so that got cancelled. We were also producing at that time a show called Club Dance, which was a country line dance program for the Nashville network and it was one of their most popular shows.
NELSON: I remember it well.
SPRAY: That was a hoot. You came into Cinetel Productions in those days and you saw more action here than if you walked on to a Hollywood lot. They were doing something in one studio, they’d be out doing something else that night, they’d be taping Club Dance, and have a crew in Chicago doing a big mansion tour for A&E, all that stuff. So it was a wonderful, fertile period of doing original programming, which was what exactly I’d wanted to get back into. So to me it was like, hey, “I just jumped back into a wonderful area,” and the programming then… we had to develop our own shows. There were a lot of things that there were no templates for. As I mentioned there was This Old House and there was Victory Garden, things like that, but beyond that you couldn’t do exactly the same thing but you knew there was a category there. So we started out in a number of different directions at the same time. We tried a little bit of everything. We did everything but a game show. People pitched us on game shows, too, and we said, no, that doesn’t quite fit the thing. We did try – we joke about it, clearly joking – the first sitcom on home improvement, the successful Home Improvement sitcom. We had a sitcom called Klutz Around the House and the idea of this is it was partially scripted, which was a mistake, and the klutz would come home and his spouse would have something for him to do and then she’d go away and he couldn’t figure out how to do it so he’d get all involved and then he’d go to the next door neighbor and the next door neighbor would come over to help him out. Well, that kind of became the ABC show Home Improvement. Now, they didn’t get the idea from us and I’m not claiming any credit for that, but we joke about it. Obviously that did not work. It was horrible! But we were trying it because it was something that we tried and we tried a lot of things and in most cases it worked. Almost everything worked, and I don’t say that out of a self-serving way, I say it more out of the sense that there was nothing in the field and the hunger was there on the part of the viewers. They wanted this material and nobody was delivering it. Therein was the success of Home and Garden Television.
NELSON: That was Ken’s vision all along.
SPRAY: That was Ken’s vision, right. All those magazine readers out there, all those folks who were interested in that, and here all of the sudden it was visually a network that brought all of that to life. Our viewers were very forgiving of us because even when we’d go down ways that we shouldn’t go, like Klutz Around the House, they’d say, “Oh, that’s not my cup of tea, you ought to do something else, but I give you credit for doing it.” We went into wine – Spencer Christian’s Wine Cellar was one of our first shows. We were in a niche, but when you niche down to wine enthusiasts, that was a sub-niche of a sub-niche. There just weren’t enough people interested in wine so we didn’t do that anymore after a couple years, but we learned a lot. We learned a lot about how these things work and how people respond to these programs and so we ended up with a 24 hour a day, seven day a week network made up of a combination originally of mainly new programs, original programs, and some things that we got off of other stations… like House Doctor we bought off of a station in San Francisco and we bought some things from Cable Ready, Gary Leiko and his group had a number of programs mainly off of PBS stations. Now, two years later – I’m not getting ahead of myself here – but two years later we actually came out and said we had 100% original programming, which gave our affiliate people, Susan Packard, food to go out and say, look, how many new cable networks are giving you 100% original programming and it became a very popular sales tool for getting distribution.
NELSON: In fact, that was one of the ways that a lot of cable networks – not to the degree that you did – would become known… even just having one original series could almost make a network if it became a hit.
SPRAY: Actually they called it a breakout series. “What’s your breakout series?” Well, we’re still dealing with that today. Home and Garden doesn’t have a breakout series; it never has had. We built it with the idea that, look, you’re looking at a collection of programs. You’re not looking at an individual program, you’re looking at a series of programs that go together and flow together and if you’re interested in it, sure you change genres, you go from gardening into decorating, yet you put the gardening shows together, you put the decorating shows together. So we’re looking at it a different way, and as it turned out we think we were right.
NELSON: Well, there’s probably some evidence to that, given your success. But since by and large there was almost none of this programming being produced, where did you find the talent for people to be on these shows because there wasn’t a stable of people who were doing these kinds of shows for years?
SPRAY: We were fortunate, and fortunate in several ways. One goes back to the Cinetel Productions that we bought here in Knoxville. They had the expertise to do programs. They also had a number of talents or had worked with talent before that either had been on the Travel Channel or on Discovery or someplace like that that we might have picked up. We had a lot of experience from our years in broadcasting of local talent that had been on stations and never gone to the network. We had connections. One of the production companies that started at the same time we did was Weller-Grossman – Rob Weller and Gary Grossman started this company. Rob Weller had been a host for years. Time Warner did a Qube experiment back in Columbus, Ohio. You would remember that, but not many people seeing this would know about that.
NELSON: Susan talked about it, actually.
SPRAY: Rob came out of that world and did local programs so he knew what it was like and went on to become host of a number of game shows, Entertainment Tonight, he became host of Entertainment Tonight. But he was smart, he said I’m not going to do this the rest of my life so he started a production company and they helped us. They got Spencer Christian for us, they got Carol Duvall, which is not a household name but certainly was in the crafting world. She was like the queen bee of the crafters and it meant a lot to people who did that.
NELSON: She wasn’t a TV personality?
SPRAY: Oh, yes. She was. There had been a show on ABC a couple of years before us called the Home Show. There was a Home Show way back when in the early days, but they put another show on hosted by Rob Weller, and he had a collection of people, Carol Duvall being one, who would come in and show him how to make Christmas cards or things like that. Kitty Bartholomew being another, who would come in and do decorating. These were two of our original hosts and they came to us through Weller-Grossman because Rob had worked with them. Everything’s derivative, you see, in this market. Anything in television it’s derivative of something else. The talent was derivative of the ABC Home Show. The shows themselves were derivative from the PBS shows, which were derivative from original shows in broadcast television when they had nothing to run on the air so they’d have to do their own shows. Anyway, that’s where the talent came from.
NELSON: Was there any homegrown talent people you kind of discovered on your own who were experts in a certain field but didn’t have a television background? I think there were a number of people.
SPRAY: Yes, one of the things that happened and we found out early on – I’ll speak about our core viewers and then I’ll talk about our extended viewers. Our core viewers are those who were with us from the beginning. They were the hardcore do-it-yourselfers. They wanted to know how to do things and they wanted to do it with their hands. Home and Garden initially was that. It was how can you do it yourself? We’re going to help you. It’s become something different from that now. DIY has moved into that field, but then that’s what it was. What was your question? Sorry.
NELSON: In terms of homegrown talent. The do-it-yourselfers, in terms of audience being accepting of what you were doing.
SPRAY: We found that the audiences wanted experts. They wanted authorities. They didn’t want somebody who just came on and introduced a segment. They wanted the person if they’re doing the segment to go over and participate in that or know it themselves. In some cases – I use Ron Hazleton as an example because he’s still on ABC Good Morning, America doing home improvement things and I think he’s doing a couple of syndicated shows now, and he was doing House Doctor for us – he knew what he was doing and when the viewer came in they knew that this guy was an expert and he wasn’t trying to pull the wool over their eyes, he wasn’t trying to pretend to be something that he wasn’t. And so we went heavily for experts and we didn’t… cosmetically we weren’t as concerned about what they looked like on the air. We were concerned about can they express themselves and do they know what they’re talking about? Now that again began to change over time, but that developed a hardcore viewer for us that gave us the initial viewing, if you will, that got us off the mat. Eventually we had to grow beyond that core viewers because there weren’t enough core viewers, so if we were going to compete with the big boys in the cable world we had to grow that and we had to extend that audience and we had to move out and bring a little more production values in and bring different talent in and do the things that we’ve had to do.
NELSON: Now in terms of that original core audience because you had this kind of loyal audience, and given your background in broadcast television, did that really help bring the advertisers onboard because you had a really dedicated audience and were really getting this hardcore information, so to speak?
SPRAY: Some yes, some no. If they were endemic advertisers like Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers or Home Depot or Scotts Fertilizer or Ralston Purina with dog food – because we were doing animal shows, too, back in those days – they got it. They knew right away that this was someplace they could be because they knew the passion of what a do-it-yourselfer was and what they would do and where they’d go to the store and buy and things like that. Now the larger advertising industry was a tough sell. They were like, “What are you talking about? This is never going to appeal.”
NELSON: Did this just look too homegrown to them?
SPRAY: Number one, it’s too homegrown, it’s too folksy, it’s not sophisticated enough for the big cities. It’s too limited because it can’t grow beyond that core viewer and we want to reach people besides just the how-to people. Like movie studios would never advertise on us because those aren’t necessarily the people that go to movies, and things like that. But the hardcore advertisers were those endemic advertisers and they’d been with us from the beginning and supported us from the beginning and eventually the rest of the advertising world came along because they realized that, my goodness, you don’t have to do it yourself to be interested in this.
NELSON: Now you talked about expanding out from your original core viewer. Tell me how you arrived at that decision and what you did to go about doing because you’re now changing the flavor of what people are seeing?
SPRAY: At the beginning, as an example of the marketing thing, we didn’t care how old people were, how young they were, we’d take them, and we chose – and I happen to think it was a good idea because I was a proponent of it, other people didn’t think it was that good, but it seemed to work well – we went to Paul Harvey’s radio show, syndicated radio show, and we reached a lot of older viewers because that was an older demographic but that was okay because they said, “Well, what is this new network? It’s homegrown. There’s no sex and violence.” We played on that because that was a part of it, you can turn on our network anytime and not see anything that your two-year-old, four-year-old kid or eight nine-year-old grandmother would not like to see or would be insulted with. So we went in that direction and it didn’t take us long…we started doing focus groups. We weren’t rated yet; we weren’t rated until three or four years, I think, after we launched and we went to focus groups and the focus groups told us, yes, we’d like to do that but we’d like to see a little more of this and a little more of that. Other people came along, Martha Stewart came along. She was there too, when we started, she was doing a weekly show. She hadn’t grown into the Martha that we know today.
NELSON: Ed, let’s talk about the growth and evolution of your programming because you did start with your core viewers. When did you realize that you had to grow beyond them and how did you go about doing that?
SPRAY: Well, it’s interesting in the fact that we never envisioned – now, maybe Ken Lowe did – but we never envisioned that we would ever be a network that would be in 90 million homes and that we’d be placing consistently in the top 15 networks in the country. We never saw that coming. We thought we were going to be exactly what we talked about – a niche network that would serve this loyal hardcore viewer and we could make money in that area. But as it started, and the feedback started, we got from all over the country in the places where we were carried – we were spotty in those days – but in the places we were carried, the immediate and positive feedback we got was overwhelming. I recall one thing – we launched December 30, 1994 and in mid-February there was a home show here in Knoxville at the convention center. We put up a little booth that wasn’t as big as this set. It was 6×6 or something like that. I got a call from Carol Hicks, our VP of communications. She said, “You’ve got to come down here, you’re not going to believe this,” and I said, “What?” She said, “We’re being mobbed down here. You’ve got to come down!” So I jumped in the car and went down there and all these people – because Knoxville was getting it – they were going to the home show and we were the hit of the home show. They were all coming over saying, “Oh, tell us about your network! We love it!” And this was like a month and a half after we’d launched, so we had an immediate type feedback that if people could get it, people were going to like it. Now some shows didn’t make it. Actually I think there’s only one or two shows that are still on that we had on back then, but the immediate reaction was we’ll do this now. As time went on we became a little bit bolder because eventually as we got rated we began to see, well, gee whiz, our Saturday and Sunday mornings are getting ratings just like Discovery is getting, and Discovery was our measuring stick, and The Learning Channel, of course, eventually they came in there with Discovery. We’re getting those kinds of ratings on Saturday and Sunday morning, but we weren’t getting them in primetime, see. Now, the good and bad news about that – the good news about that is the advertisers understood that and our primetime was Saturday and Sunday morning because that’s when the homemakers were home, that’s when the do-it-yourselfers were home, that’s when they were looking for things to do, that’s when people had been accustomed to watching that kind of program on PBS stations and such. Nobody had been accustomed to it during the week or in primetime. So we thought, why can’t we… well, maybe we can spread this out and we kind of walked and crawled and then walked and we saw our first ratings and we said, gee, this is pretty good. We tried things and we tried promotion schemes and Dream Home Giveaway was something that we did that became a success right on, which called attention to Home and Garden which got people at least familiar with that, a lot of marketing things that Ken could talk to much better about, and we found out we could get some primetime stuff. Another show that broke through for us, which is not really our category, but we picked up the second year – this would have been New Year’s Day of 1996 – the international feed of the Rose Parade and it had no commercials in it because it was an international feed, and we got so many letters and cards and phone calls saying, my goodness, this is the best parade I’ve ever seen, do it again, do it again, do it again! Eventually when we were rated we found out that we had – I can’t quote what the initial rating was, but it was a two or something for this little cable network. So we’re thinking, gee, we can get there! So we began adding things and we expanded the categories.
NELSON: So it’s partly you try something, you’re seeing that it’s working. There wasn’t a point when you said we’ve got to change what we’ve got on-air. It sort of evolved. The Rose Bowl Parade is such a classic because for one thing it doesn’t seem like it’s quite in your niche, and for the other thing, why would you pick up something that’s commercial free? What’s the gain in that?
SPRAY: Well, it was desperation, I think. The people who were selling the feed called us up. Kristen Jordan, who was head of acquisitions at that time, started talking to them and she said, “How would you like to do the Rose Parade?” We said, “Oh, come on. We can’t do the Rose Parade.” I don’t know what the money was but it was a pittance, but then that told us that a) we could get the viewers, b) that we could make something out of the Rose Parade, and to this day it’s commercial free, ten years later.
NELSON: It’s a great platform.
SPRAY: But it’s a great platform. You can’t get better marketing than that, and we made the coverage different than what you got on the networks where they were all promoting their daytime soap operas or their new primetime shows and bringing on their new talent and introducing it. We were talking about how those flowers were actually grown and how they were placed on that float and getting into the real gardening aspect, from our category, of the Rose Parade.
NELSON: Were there other newer style programs that come to mind? Something that proved to be in your terms a break-out or that started to characterize the new look and feel of HGTV?
SPRAY: Well, yes, there were a number of shows, and Burton Jablin, who was our executive producer and then eventually VP of Programming would remember better than I. My memory is beginning to get on the graying side. But yes, one of the shows that we really took a chance on was an episodic show of a person building their own home, a couple building their own home for the first time, and we took it from conception through the architectural drawing through the building to the move-in day, and it was continuous. It wasn’t like here was the show in a half-hour, you had to keep coming back every week. Burton came up with the idea of doing that. I said, “Oh, I don’t think we can sustain an episodic show like that.” “Let’s try it.” Okay, we did, and people said, “Oh, my goodness, I’ve never seen anybody build a house before,” and they learned the characters there. It was a yuppie couple that thought they knew it all and half the audience was wanting them to fail and half of them were wanting them to succeed and at the end they succeeded in building a house but ran out of money and had to sell the house, couldn’t move into it.
NELSON: That was a dramatic ending!
SPRAY: Burton came in one day and he said, “We’ve got a problem.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “We’re not going to have a happy ending.” I said, “Everything has a happy ending, doesn’t it?” He said, “No, but I think it’s going to be even more interesting,” and it was. It was more interesting they went through all of this and then couldn’t afford to do it because they’d over-extended themselves.
NELSON: So that was a real dose of reality TV for sure.
SPRAY: A dose of reality, and we learned from that. We learned that people are interested in stories of people, as opposed to as I said earlier on, of somebody coming out and saying, “Here’s how you do it,” talking right to the camera, this is how you plant the rose, this is how you put the hammer on the head of the nail, or whatever the case may be.
NELSON: That’s what I picked up earlier when you mentioned doing the dramatic programming in Chicago because I think it did become much more than merely informational. It really became something where the story really became the important part of it, and of course there was all the information built into it.
SPRAY: Sure. Now, I brought a lot to that but I also have to give a great deal of credit to Burton Jablin because I came out of the programming area, the non-news programming area. He came out of the news area. So he was used to being focused and concise and delivering the goods, so to speak. I was more used to the flashy, let’s put a little music in there and eventually we’ll get to the content. So the two of us together were really kind of an, I think, good counterbalance, but he really gets the credit for focusing the programming down so people really got something out of it. I, then, in turn put it together into a schedule that seemed to work and we changed that a million times probably, since we’ve launched.
NELSON: But as you’ve broadened your base, obviously your cable carriage got hugely greater, and then we started seeing this phenomenon of other people doing this kind of programming. Did you react to that as this is competition, is this a threat, how do we respond? Even where it got up to the level of not merely – merely, I don’t mean that in a derogative sense at all – not merely cable, but even broadcast?
SPRAY: Right, well, again, it was probably an evolutionary thing. You have to have a competitor. You have to measure yourself with somebody and we were measuring ourselves against Discovery and The Learning Channel, clearly, because they were the only people doing it. So we joked about we want to stay under the tree line as long as we can, but eventually you’ve got to come out and eventually Madison Avenue decided that we were a good investment and the advertising came, and when the advertising came that’s when the interest in our type of programs became a little more widespread. Also, the ratings came and when they saw what we were getting with this type of programming, particularly in primetime – yes, Saturday and Sunday you can understand a little bit more – but primetime, you’re getting these kind of ratings? Here again, television is copycat and it has been forever, so we copied off of Discovery a little bit, they copied off of PBS, it all came down, and then all of the sudden it was coming around and people were copying off of us, or I shouldn’t say copying so much as deriving subjects and topics and areas for programming that we’d already launched, and we might have been the first to launch that but somebody else came along with it later.
NELSON: So in a way you just viewed this as a marker of your success?
SPRAY: Initially we viewed it as a little bit of a marker of success. Eventually, when programs like Trading Spaces came along on The Learning Channel and just absolutely soared in the ratings we had to say, now wait a minute. Strangely enough, though, Trading Spaces, as it was in our category, it never really affected our ratings that much because it was a different viewer that was viewing us than what they were watching Trading Spaces for. It affected us, I’m not trying to say that it didn’t, but now, as we talk here in 2005, Desperate Housewives on Sunday night effects us more ratings wise than anything our category had done on any other network, including Trading Spaces because it’s the demographic. It’s attracting the demographic, in this case, well, I don’t want to generalize it to say just young women, but it attracts that audience that also is attracted to Home and Garden and DIY, as far as that’s concerned. So we considered it a little bit of flattery at first, after that we decided that it was really a threat, and then along came Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, okay, and you talk about taking something to the extreme, and it worked. Then ABC comes along with Extreme Home Makeover and it worked. But we found out something early on, and it came about as what I said about Trading Spaces. We found out that they were watching those programs different than what they watched ours. I say currently because ABC still has that show on the air, so is Trading Spaces is still on, but they watch those shows for the entertainment value, not the informational value. What we were giving and what our mantra was from the very beginning, almost day one, was what’s the takeaway? It’s like the Bill Clinton thing – it’s the budget, stupid, or something like that. Ours was what’s the takeaway and every segment of every show there had to be something that the viewer would walk away with that they learned, that they just didn’t waste three minutes small-talking or showing something that had no consequence at all.
NELSON: So it could never be just entertainment for entertainment’s sake? There had to be a, let’s call it a learning element.
SPRAY: Yes, it had to have a learning and instructional element. We avoided those words, of course, because those are words that aren’t exactly attractive to viewers, but we stick to that today. Even though we have expanded the way we cover things now, we do a lot more stories, story-driven shows, we get to know the characters, but they’re doing something, they’re going through something that you can relate to as a viewer, that you either have been through it or you plan to go through it. You’re not watching it just because they’re these interesting people who are having fun and being embarrassed by how the show turns out. There’s a different thing there, and there’s room for both, don’t get me wrong, I’m not being demeaning to the other category. I’m saying that’s how we’re different because you always walk away learning something from our programs and if you don’t, the shows shouldn’t be on the air.
NELSON: So it’s not going to be a Fear Factor where you’re kind of sitting back and…
SPRAY: That’s right. Or it’s not going to be like Trading Spaces where you have the neighbors come in and decorate your house and it’s ugly. What do you learn from that? You might learn to pick up a couple of tips but…
NELSON: What not to do.
SPRAY: What not to do, yes.
NELSON: But that’s not really your niche, what not to do. How about in terms of all this content that you’ve developed, how does this play into some of the other ways you use it, online, VOD? Because of the fact that there was so much original content that you owned that gives you a lot of opportunities that perhaps somebody else doesn’t have.
SPRAY: Well, again, fortuitously, if that’s the word, Frank Gardner and I and Ken Lowe all had been in the station business and had dealt with syndicators and all of us sat across the table from Roger King of King World or so-and-so from Paramount or so-and-so from MCA, and had to renew things, and Lord help us when you’d have Oprah and Oprah’s renewal came up and Roger King was sitting across the desk from you. You had no leverage whatsoever. So from the beginning, Frank Gardner was always of the opinion that anything we do we should own for that very reason. We don’t want to have to pay residuals on it, we don’t want to have to go back, we want to be able to use it. We don’t know what we’re going to use it for, necessarily, but we’ll figure out a use for it. We have, of course, but at the time it was like “We’ve got to own it.” So we went in and I actually, from a negotiating standpoint with the producers it was fairly easy because I said, “Look, we want 13 of this type of show, we’ll pay you this amount of dollars, we own everything, and you supply us with the talent, you pay the talent, you supply us with the music, you take care of the music rights,” and that’s how it started. Now that’s changed now because we do it a lot differently now, and if you don’t like that, if that doesn’t work for you, fine. We’re still friends. We’ll find somebody who wants to do that. So it was kind of a great position to be in to say, and there was a lot at that time, there still are, a lot of production companies trying to get started, new ones like Weller-Grossman who certainly knew what they were doing trying to get started and need business and we found a lot of those.
NELSON: So in a way, in this case, the leverage was more on your side. “Hey, we’ve got air to fill, if you want to work with us fine, if not we’ll find someone else.”
SPRAY: That’s right, that’s right, and through that we developed a relationship with these companies and a lot of these companies are still producing for us.
NELSON: But you said now you do it differently. How do you do it differently? Are the deals different?
SPRAY: Yes, the deals are different. Yes, we still own all the programs.
NELSON: Did they have any kind of interest in them?
SPRAY: No. There’s not a show that I know of in our library that there’s any outside interest. Either we’ve leased it like This Old House, which we clearly don’t own and we’re still running it on DIY… we actually leased Martha Stewart shows for our networks a couple of years ago. Either it’s that, or it’s produced by us. Now the talent’s a different story because talent came along and we developed talent and they became staples, so then we put them under contract to the network and then we in essence would loan them out to the production companies. That’s probably an oversimplification but we didn’t want to lose those talents.
NELSON: And you had the control over the talent?
SPRAY: Right. Actually you talked about competition. We were more concerned about Discovery and Travel and all those channels stealing our talent than we were about our shows because we’d develop somebody and they’d come in and want to pay them more money and would have the wallet to do that where we didn’t. We were still working on nickels and dimes.
NELSON: I assume you did lose some people here and there.
SPRAY: Yes, we did, but the good thing is that a lot of talent stayed with us even though they could have made money somewhere else because they knew – and this was the argument that I learned to convince them to stay with us – is that we’re going to be here. We’re here 24 hours a day. If your show runs its course there’s probably another show like it, maybe we can use you on that. If you go over to our competitor, when that show’s over in 13 weeks, 26 weeks, they’re done with you. You’re out on the street again. You’ve got to start all over again. So stay with us and become part of our family and as part of our family we’ll work together with you, and we did. I think we’ve been very loyal to the talent that we have nurtured, developed. Ron Hazleton was someone who was a great talent for us and he eventually on his own wanted to grow and started his own syndication program and went to Good Morning, America and we wish him well because he’s still part of the family as far as we’re concerned. Other people the same way.
NELSON: How about in terms of how this content plays internationally? I know you’ve got a lot of international activity, or do you really have to produce stuff from scratch for those markets? Is any of this transferable? Obviously to English speaking countries it is.
SPRAY: Yes, certainly. Canada, of course, we launched our own version up there. As you know, in Canada you can only own 33% of anything being outside the country. So we developed a relationship up there and have our own network, HGTV Canada and over the H or the G there’s a little maple leaf, which is kind of neat, and it’s our same logo.
NELSON: That’s a kind of homey feel.
SPRAY: Now, speaking of English, we didn’t have much luck in England because they really had their own way of doing things. Their garden was really gardening. Our gardening was just playing around, you know. Then also, in some countries you got into units of measurements – inches versus centimeters and whatever, so you had that to play with. What we found, I think, played the best was ideas for decorating because everybody could see that and could do it their own way but it would give them ideas. The how-to stuff didn’t go that well because, again, there was a difference in how you do things and how you measure things and such.
NELSON: Now, just to kind of look back a bit, I know you’ve probably been in a reflective mood yourself since you’ve just moved on, what do you think your legacy is here? What do you think your greatest contribution is? I know you’ve worked awfully hard, but what would you like your legacy to be? What would the mark that you left here be?
SPRAY: Well, that’s a tough one because there are any number of ways you’d like to be remembered. You’d like to be remembered for programming, you’d like to be remembered for the way you treated people, you’d like to be remembered for the budgets you made, all those things.
NELSON: And I’m not saying you’re going to be forgotten so quickly, either. Let’s be clear about that.
SPRAY: I’d have to answer that… for me personally, I think the most rewarding thing, whether I’m remembered for that or not I can’t control, was to be able to put together something like this, calling on everything that I’d learned throughout my career and it all comes together at one point in time and to start something new and original and not be just buying another show off the shelf, another talk show, another game show – I’m talking as a programmer now, my career was that. Being able to actually start original productions! Think about that. Now it wasn’t entertainment. Now most people would get their kicks from entertainment, you know, but we were doing not entertainment but we were doing original productions and they were good and people liked them and they became a network, and that network, by the way, has finished in the top ten of all 51 or 52 measured cable networks a number of times. It’s always in the top fifteen, and we went up against entertainment networks that clearly are much more attractive to all of us to watch entertainment than to watch something that has a little bit of instruction in it, but found that niche. I had a professor in college who always said, and everybody knows this, but he drilled it in to us, “Life is a compromise. You’ve got to compromise and you just have to learn where that compromise happens.” I had another professor that said, he’d write it on the bulletin board, “Content dictates.” And at the time it didn’t mean that much to me, but what it meant was if you don’t have the content you don’t have anything. You can’t do flash and trash and all of that. You’ve got to have something there, and so I think what I feel the most rewarded by is being able to compromise at the highest possible position, in terms of quality, in terms of money, in terms of talent, in terms of whatever your measuring stick is, and also be able to say the content is there, and we took the content to the highest possible point and maybe even above that and we’re going to keep doing that. Me being instrumental in doing that and providing this service to viewers is… there’s nothing more rewarding than that.