Long before becoming king of how-to TV at cable network HGTV, Ed Spray moved into This Old House. He and his wife bought a home built in 1907 across the street from a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Like so many properties featured on the do-it-yourself shows on HGTV, it needed lots of tender care.
That was more than 25 years ago, and the president of Scripps Networks has avoided home-improvement projects ever since. "You get started on it and never finish," he says, noting that it took about eight years to get the house into shape. Now he hires out such work.
But E.W. Scripps & Co. wasn't counting on Spray's skill with tools when it put him atop the company's most important growth engine. The broadcasting and newspaper company was rewarding his ability to hammer out tons of original programming on the cheap and to make it gel into a successful network.
When Ken Lowe, now chairman and CEO of Scripps, tapped him to help start up HGTV in 1994, Spray was more than a bit of a corporate burnout. After years in local broadcast TV, he had taken a corporate job buying syndicated programming for CBS' owned stations. "I ended up as a casualty of the [CBS Chairman] Larry Tisch years, just another vice president that bit the dust."
Fired at 50 in 1991, Spray freelanced as a director for a while, then turned to an early love: academia. He became an associate professor at Syracuse University's communications school, a move that usually ends a career.
But Scripps was looking to get into cable, starting up HGTV, a home-improvement network inspired by the success of PBS shows
This Old House
as well as how-to shows on Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel. Because very little syndicated programming was available, HGTV had to be built almost entirely from scratch and on a tight budget.
What made Spray appealing to Lowe and Ed Gardner, then head of Scripps 'broadcast-station group, were his roots at two venerable Chicago news operations. After eight years as a producer at NBC-owned WMAQ-TV, Spray had moved over to rival CBS-owned WBBM-TV in 1974. At that time, the FCC blocked networks from owning and syndicating much programming, and stations hadn't figured out that they could load up on
Wheel of Fortune. So networks pushed stations to develop local programming.
Spray aired shows that today would never see the light of day, such as a staged trial of disgraced Chicago White Sox star Shoeless Joe Jackson or a documentary on the Chicago Symphony. HGTV now uses many of the creative talents Spray worked with in Chicago.
"It was a wonderful period," he says. "This was the golden age of local programming."
It was the kind of background Lowe sought. "He was a television director, but he saw the big picture," Lowe recalls. "He knew how to competitively block programming and how to counterprogram."
Spray was a bit uncertain that tight-fisted Scripps would spend the money needed to make HGTV work. "It was a 50-50 chance. I took it on a whim. Even if it flops," he told himself, "I'll be a better teacher because I'll know more about the cable industry."
There's little chance of a return to the classroom. Scripps came through and now owns 90% of its programming. Spray has advanced to the top of all four Scripps nets: HGTV, Food TV and start-ups DIY and Fine Living. He's particularly excited about Fine Living, a luxury-themed lifestyle channel. "The trick there is to get placed not as
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
but not too snooty for people to pay attention to."