In 1962 — before Rachael Ray and Jamie Oliver were born — WGBH produced Julia Child’s first cooking show, “The French Chef,” unaware it was creating a different type of television: lifestyle programming. As Boston’s PBS station expanded its niche to include “The Victory Garden,” “This Old House,” and “The New Yankee Workshop,” cable television exploded with lifestyle networks like HGTV, Food Network and Discovery, not to mention lifestyle programming blocks on everything from A&E to TLC.
How does WGBH — the grandparent of the genre and the major producer of PBS’ primetime programming — stay fresh given the enormous amount of competition?
“I’m aware of what the competition’s doing, but I don’t spend my life at a periscope looking around me,” says Laurie Donnelly, WGBH’s executive producer in charge of lifestyle programming. “I don’t want to be compared with cable. My role, or agenda, is to produce programs across many genres.”
WGBH also presents “Ask This Old House” and “Real Simple,” produces “Simply Ming” and “Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie,” and will soon add “Food Trip With Todd English” to its lineup.
A baby boomer with teenage kids, Donnelly — a self-proclaimed eternal student — is reflective of PBS’ audience.
“I use myself as a lens,” she says. “What do I care about? What am I interested in? What voids do I want to fill? What do I want to watch when I go home at night? What will be satisfying to me? I want television that makes my life better, makes me feel better. That’s my barometer.”
Following up her master’s degree in community sociology with a four-year graduate fellowship with the National Institute of Mental Health, Donnelly never envisioned a television career.
“I wanted to change the world, but knew I’d have to do it one person at a time. Then I had a revelation that if I went into TV I’d be able to reach a much bigger audience. What I’m passionate about is having the ability to really affect people’s lives and to do it in a dramatic way.”
She turned her focus to journalism.
She started in commercial television on Dr. Timothy Johnson’s “Health” and, later, “HealthBeat.” After Johnson became medical editor for ABC News, Donnelly signed on as senior producer of WGBH-produced “Body Watch.” That was 21 ago.
Donnelly feels PBS can give medical issues in-depth attention they deserve, hence the upcoming “The Hidden Epidemic: Heart Disease in America.”
“Health programming is something I’m passionate about,” she says, “which is why I’m bringing it back.”
If WGBH captured lifestyle programming in its nascent stage, it also recognizes that traditional broadcasting must be supplemented by multiple platforms. For example, for “Simply Ming” and “The Victory Garden” it has started VODcasts, offering “simple tips people can download that encourage them to tune in,” Donnelly says. “We also want to provide beefier Web content — that’s important to us.”