No Handyman Himself, but He Heads HGTVNews experience prepared Jablin for niche programming 12/21/2003 07:00:00 PM Eastern
Looking to pass the time one slow New Year's Day in the mid 1980s, Burton Jablin, then a young news producer for CBS's WBBM-TV Chicago, and a co-worker decided to stage their own Tournament of Roses parade in the newsroom. They fashioned floats out of cardboard boxes and recruited the anchor to narrate over the intercom. Today, as president of HGTV, Jablin presides over the coverage of the real Tournament of Roses parade on New Year's Day.
"Little did I know the Rose Parade would be back in my life again," says Jablin. "It is typically the highest-rated program we do all year."
In 1994, after years in local news, Jablin took the plunge into cable, joining startup lifestyle cable net Home & Garden Television. He had been looking to leave news and segue into entertainment. He was intrigued by HGTV's plans to create "info-entertainment," a hybrid of news and entertainment. So Jablin, who had spent his life in big cities like Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles, moved to Knoxville, Tenn., to become HGTV's first executive producer of programming and its sixth employee. Since then, he has climbed to programming chief and general manager and now runs the Scripps Networks-owned channel.
Jablin isn't much of a remodeler or gardener himself. If he were to inspire an HGTV show, he quips, the program would advise viewers how to hire the right people to get the jobs done. He speaks from experience, having just completed a two-year renovation on his home. "I went through what I see represented on the network everyday, but I don't think watching prepared me for the reality."
What he can really relate to, though, is the strong appeal of HGTV's lifestyle programming. Under Jablin and his team, the network is thriving, with record prime time ratings this fall, a 0.9 household rating. More than 1 million viewers tune in to at least seven different shows.
Jablin credits his experience in local news for teaching him how to program for a niche cable audience. With both, he says, "you really get a sense of what your audience wants and apply it."
A Chicago-area native, Jablin started out as a researcher at WBBM-TV and climbed the ranks to executive producer. Later, he headed west to Los Angeles to executive-produce the 10 p.m. newscast for Fox's KTTV(TV). By 1992, he was burned out on the news business and took a year off to hopscotch the world, including visits to New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Nepal and Sweden.
Just before he departed for Sweden, his former boss from Chicago and Los Angeles, Frank Gardner, called to tell him about the new Scripps cable network HGTV. Jablin admits that he knew little about the cable industry, which was probably for the best. "If I had known how difficult it was to get a channel up and running, the rational side of me probably would have said this wasn't an opportunity you should take."
He recalls traveling to New Orleans in 1994 for HGTV's first National Cable Show, where HGTV was one of about 100 new networks. Today, two of those channels have become big successes, says Jablin: HGTV and The History Channel. "A 2% rate of success, that is not a very good gamble."
But he placed the right bet. Lifestyle programming has become one of TV's hottest reality genres, thanks to shows like TLC's Trading Spaces.
For its part, HGTV introduced more entertainment and storytelling to its own shows about five years ago, while preserving its "three I's" directive to include information, inspiration and ideas in all its shows.
To keep growing, Jablin says, HGTV needs to keep finding fresh ways to program. "We need to be the innovator since it is our category. We can't ride out one style and hope for the best. That isn't our future."