Kathleen Finch knew precious little about cooking when she joined the Food Network. This senior VP of prime time programming and special projects boasts a Stanford degree and a meaty background in local and national programming, but as a native New Yorker who lived near the nation’s greatest restaurants, she didn’t hang out in the kitchen.
“We ate out all the time,” she says of her childhood. “I had to admit I knew nothing about food.”
That has been no impediment to her productivity at the Scripps network.
She joined Food in 1999 as director of programming and assumed her current position last year. In the process, Finch evolved the channel from airing instructional fare to showing broad-skewing programming for gourmands and kitchen couch potatoes, catapulting shows like recent smash hit Iron Chef America into the pop-cultural stratosphere.
Finch’s string of successes began with comfort-food series Unwrapped, a look at the making of America’s favorite foods, which she pitched after her young daughter suggested a show on candy; inspired, Finch trolled the aisles of her local supermarket, notepad in tow, jotting down interesting products to profile.
The show, which has now filmed more than 200 episodes, joins Roker on the Road, Paula’s Home Cooking and Semi-Homemade Cooking on her list of hits.
PUTTING TOGETHER THE INGREDIENTS
Finch’s penchant for television began at age 9, when she sat in the studio audience for the filming of local game show Wonderama, which aired on New York’s WNYW before it was Fox—an experience made all the more sweet by the fact that she was otherwise banned from watching TV as a child.
Now 43, she recalls, “It was mesmerizing, magic. I looked around at all the people working on the show and thought never in a million years could somebody have a job as cool as this. TV was this forbidden fruit that made it so fantastically fascinating that I lusted after it.”
While attending college, Finch interned at the station, ending up overseeing production for a then-new relationship-themed talk show hosted by Dr. Ruth Westheimer. The show’s producer left the day the program started, and Finch took over segment production, audience coordination and scriptwriting.
After college, she returned to New York, worked in local TV and joined CBS News, where she worked for 12 years as a producer.
That was fun and exciting, and helped Finch make friends and contacts, but it didn’t exactly provide optimum conditions under which to nurture a stable family life. (She and her husband, journalist Peter Finch, have three daughters, ages 9, 14 and 18.)
“I had my passport in my purse and my beeper on 24 hours a day,” she says. “I’d take phone calls in the grocery store from my boss asking how close I was to the airport because I needed to go.”
But soon, this avid runner took a step back, joining then-Food Network President (and former CBS News President) Eric Ober to help create the story-driven documentary/reality-style shows Ober wanted.
COOL AS A CUCUMBER
She now oversees the prime time schedule, including the weekly Food Network Challenge specials the network sponsors, on which she sometimes makes guest on-air appearances; Food Network Star, this summer’s upcoming reality hunt for a TV chef; and recent broad-skewing hit Iron Chef America, which regularly attracts hundreds of thousands of viewers, even on competitive Sunday nights.
“A lot of people look at [Food Network] as niche, narrow programming, and it’s not. This audience proves that,” Finch says. “If we can do well against Desperate Housewives on a Sunday night, we can all rest pretty easy.”
Food Network President Brooke Johnson calls Finch “the ultimate cool-headed chef in the kitchen—deftly managing the creative, logistical and financial details of our prime time strategy. ”
Finch has two pieces of advice to up-and-coming women in the industry: Find a mentor—she coaches young grads through her alumni association—and don’t be afraid to start small, even if it means making coffee.
“Take a job that gets you in front of the people who make decisions—and impress them,” Finch says. “A lot of women are afraid to take secretarial work, but if you do it well and with a smile on your face, you won’t be doing it long.”