Shotgun weddings and small houses have been good for A+E Networks during the past year.
While the cable group has struggled with ratings declines at its flagship channels, fledgling FYI been a growing success story for the company that is home to A&E, Lifetime and History. The lifestyle outlet that bowed a year ago today as a rebrand of Bio has achieved solid growth in primetime with a quirky mix of unscripted series, notably “Married at First Sight” and “Tiny House Nation.”
As with any startup venture, programming for FYI has been a work in progress. Jana Bennett, president of FYI and Lifetime sibling LMN, said the most important thing was to avoid being too rigid in defining the network as targeting a particular niche. On FYI, food-related programs run alongside home makeover and interior design programs, travelogues and provocative “social experiment” docu-series such as “Married at First Sight” — which is exactly what the title promises. (To date, the series has yielded six long-term relationships, according to FYI.)
“I think we surprised people by being a hybrid network,” Bennett told Variety. “We have tried to put our arms around not one vertical category but shows that reflect how people live today.”
FYI had the luxury of launching with the aid of the deep pockets and resources of A+E Networks. The channel had a little more than 300 hours of original primetime programming ready to roll from day one — which allowed programmers to experiment with the style and tone of shows as well as scheduling patterns and digital extensions.
The FYI target is viewers ranging from the millennials to adults 25-54 in upscale homes, with annual incomes of $75,000 or more. So far, the channel is up about 10% in adults 25-54 in primetime compared to what Bio delivered in its final year. In May, the channel’s primetime average in total viewers was about 202,000, up 35% from the year-ago mark, and up 51% in adults 25-54, to 101,000.
“Married at First Sight” delivered about 620,000 total viewers in its second season which aired this year. “Tiny House Nation” averaged 375,000 viewers.
Granted, the Bio numbers set the growth bar pretty low, but it is nonetheless an accomplishment to draw a crowd for new shows in such a crowded TV landscape. It helps to have properties that generate some debate such as its latest premiere, “Seven Year Switch,” which featured married couples who opt to spend a week living with strangers as a test of their relationships. The concept of setting up with an “experimental spouse” drew some quick criticism from orgs such as the Parents Television Council.
Bennett, an alum of the BBC and TLC, maintains that the show is an example of “exploration not exploitation.” “Switch” has not raised any issues with advertisers, she said.
“I like the idea that we’re moving toward a more documentary-style treatment of relationship shows. People are going into this as an exploration of how to make their lives actually better. These are optimistic shows with high stakes,” Bennett said.
Another thing that Bennett’s team learned early on — FYI’s viewers didn’t warm up to straight-ahead how-to programming, but they did want shows that offered “takeaway” information and tips on various topics.
Of the 24 original FYI series that launched in year one, six have been renewed.
One of the surprises in the first year was the strong response to “Tiny House Nation,” a show that chronicles the downscaling trend for couples with means who choose to live in homes that are no more than 300 square feet. The success of the show yielded the spinoff “Tiny House Hunting” and the upcoming “He Shed, She Shed,” depicting how couples pare down their worldly possessions in order to squeeze into to their micro-digs.
As the FYI team moves in to year two, Bennett and her team of programmers are looking to continue the spirit of experimentation and genre-defying programming with a raft of new shows on deck. They are taking some inspiration from digital destinations such as Pinterest and Etsy that cater to people with a range of specific passions. FYI has established a partnership with Pinterest as the site’s user base is a good fit with the cabler’s target audience.
“We have had the good fortune of thinking differently about the how we (approach) things, whether it’s in the relationship space or living spaces or food,” Bennett said. “Now we are building on our reputation for (offering) intelligent experiences.”
(Pictured: Tiny House Nation)