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Comedians on Food Network? Scripps Seeks Laughs to Court Younger Crowd

Kathleen Finch wants cooks, home-builders and explorers to laugh a little more.

When viewers of Food Network, Travel Channel and HGTV tune in to those cable outlets in the not-too-distant future, chances are they will encounter  popular comedians talking about the food they eat, the places they travel to and the way they do their jobs. It’s a description that reminds one of “Insomnica,” the cult-favorite Comedy Central series that had comedian Dave Attell take a boozy pass through a city’s nightlife. Already, Andy Richter, who plays sidekick to late-night host Conan O’Brien, is associated with Food Network’s “Celebrity Food Fight,” and shows are in development at the company that will involve Arsenio Hall and David Alan Grier.

“You will see us veering into the world of comedy a little bit,” said Finch, who was named chief programming, content and brand officer for Scripps Networks Interactive, the Knoxville, Ky., company that owns the networks, last year. “Comedy and just a sense of humor work so well to attract younger audiences.” And comedians can help produce content that might pop digitally, she added.

Scripps is making a conscious effort to woo the millennial crowd, said Finch, who has been stocking the programming pipelines for all six of the company’s networks. As U.S. media companies prepare for TV’s annual upfront market, during which TV networks try to sell a large portion of their ad inventory for the coming season, Finch’s bets will bear a lot of significance for the company. After a successful stint overseeing HGTV, her aegis has expanded, and Food Network’s programming will bear her stamp after years of being supervised by Brooke Johnson, who stepped down last year. Scripps also recently took full control of Travel Channel, adding impetus to its efforts.

The company believes the millennial generation, or consumers between 18 and 34, is coming into its own financially, and is therefore growing more interested in the types of activities seen on Scripps’ outlets: home buying and renovation; cooking; and travel and exploration. “The millennial generation is just such a huge amount of people, and it’s coming. We are just future-proofing our business,” said Finch in a recent interview. “We must make sure we resonate.”

The executive, a former producer for CBS News, is taking some of the techniques that bolstered HGTV when she ran it, and applying them to Scripps’ other holdings. Finch has tapped more celebrities and people involved in real businesses and turned them into personalities with a yen for home improvement. Under her supervision, HGTV and DIY have in some cases raised ratings (and some eyebrows) with shows that involve such luminaries as Jennie Garth, Vanilla Ice, William Shatner and Mr. T.

She has also championed investment in a lot of content, to keep new ideas and faces coming to the screen. “We are being very aggressive about pilots. We are going to green-light anywhere from 30 to 75 new projects at each fo the three big networks,” she said. “It’s a great way to introduce new talent. It’s a great way to get concepts up and running. We try a few episodes on the air, and if it works, we will commission a full order.”

Finch wants to add more adventure to Travel Channel, while also making sure the destinations explored are perhaps more popular than they are exotic; more programs to Food Network that allow for family viewing; and more humor across the board. Her list of coming programs includes an HGTV series featuring actress Monica Potter renovating her childhood home in Cleveland. The title: “Welcome Back, Potter.” And Food Network will have more kids’ competitions like a junior version of “Next Food Network Star.”

Humor will be key, she said. It’s an element that has worked in HGTV hits like “Fixer Upper,” which features Chip and Joanna Gaines. The duo don’t take things too seriously and can be self-deprecating, she explained. Nor will people like stand-up comic Ty Barnett, who is set to host a pilot called “Cheap Eats” for Food Network. Or Daymon “Daym” Patterson and Chris “C-Snacks” Clarke, slated to host a new show called “Baby Got Snacks.”

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