It's thanks to the fact that Ken Lowe is a self-proclaimed “frustrated architect” that the E.W. Scripps company has been so successful. It's how he thought up Home and Garden TV (HGTV), the cable network for do-it-yourself renovators, interior decorators and gardeners that jump-started Scripps in the cable business.
That led to other Scripps' lifestyle channels: Food Network, Do-It-Yourself Network (DIY) and Fine Living.
“It was really a matter of avocation meets vocation,” says Lowe, Scripps' president/CEO. “I thought about becoming an architect in college. I had designing and building homes under my skin.”
Although Scripps is now best-known for its successful raft of cable networks, the company also was one of the nation's first broadcasters. It has a booming Internet business along with the venerable newspaper chain that started it all.
Lowe and the E.W. Scripps Co. will be honored with the Golden Mike Award at the Broadcasters Foundation of America gala at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York Feb. 26. The award is given each year to an outstanding broadcaster with an eye toward community service.
Although it's those cable networks that get Scripps a lot of ink, the company has substantial broadcast holdings, with 10 stations in major markets including Detroit, Phoenix, Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati, where the company is based.
Lowe “understands how a TV station has to relate to its community and how that is different than a cable network,” says William Peterson, Scripps senior VP of television. “The two exist in different worlds, with different nuances and different challenges.”
“We don't view Ken as a cable guy,” says foundation Chairman Phil Lombardo, CEO of Citadel Communications. “Scripps has a large footprint in over-the-air TV and a large footprint in cable. He's also active on numerous civic organizations, and Scripps as a company is very involved in its communities in many, many ways.”
On an individual level, Lowe's staffers cite his loyalty and attention to them personally. For example, he sends them hand-written notes to celebrate a birthday or an anniversary.
He's thoughtful that way. “In my first years of working here, I was traveling so much with my distribution work that I was very rarely home,” says Susan Packard, HGTV president of brand outreach and the first person Lowe hired to work at the network's headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn. “Every time there was a dinner after work, and that was often, Ken would come into my office and say, I'm inviting you to dinner with so-and-so and I'm hoping you refuse. He recognized that, from a work-balance standpoint, I needed to not attend every single event. But at the same time, he was smart enough to know that, if he didn't invite me, I would wonder why not.”
As a manager and a leader, Lowe, 56, born in Mt. Airy, N.C., is demanding but endlessly entrepreneurial and creative, say his executives.
“He's a voracious reader,” says Scripps Networks Executive VP Burton Jablin. “Whenever he travels through an airport, he will collect any newspaper and magazine he can get his hands on. Then he'll go through them and rip things out and circle them and send them to you. He's constantly barraging you with ideas.”
Says Packard, “He has a rare combination of head and heart. He's analytical yet creative. He's strategic but has no problem digging out the details. He's the whole package in terms of being a CEO and executive.”
Lowe was one of those kids who loved radio and the science of broadcasting from an early age, going so far as to set up his own small radio station when he was just 10.
While he has other passions—including designing and building homes, collecting classic cars and fly-fishing—broadcasting was his first love.
He turned that into a career, spinning records at a local radio station when he was 15 and majoring in radio, TV and motion pictures at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where DJ Rick Dees was his roommate.
As Lowe evolved from radio talent into a top-level executive, he moved around the country, which gave him the opportunity to build several houses.
He soon realized that there weren't many TV programs dedicated to helping people improve their living spaces.
“I began to think that the MTV generation was growing up and beginning to mature, get married and buy homes,” he says. “There were only a few shows, such as This Old House or Martha Stewart, which served that need. It felt like a natural that the MTV generation could easily become the home-and-garden generation.”
In fact, he says, his radio background gave him a better understanding of the nascent cable business than most traditional television broadcasters have.
“I don't think it's coincidental that a lot of folks who had a hand in the development of cable networks came out of radio,” says Lowe. “They had a better understanding of a more niche type of programming. Radio was truly that, whereas in broadcasting, so much of a local station's content came from the network. Radio guys tended to be more hands-on and more promotion- and marketing-driven.”
His dream and his ticket
After starting his career in radio and TV in 1969 at Southern Broadcasting and then Harte-Hanks Broadcasting, Lowe joined Scripps in 1980 as general manager of the company's radio properties, now all sold off. He became VP of programming, production and marketing for its TV stations in 1988.
HGTV was his dream and his ticket. He presented the idea to the Scripps board of directors in 1992 by drawing them a house and then explaining how each room could be the subject of its own show. The board bit, and in 1994, HGTV was born.
It took time for the network to grow, in part because Scripps doesn't own any cable systems. But today, it boasts distribution in 91 million households. And what started as one network has launched an entire family of highly branded lifestyle channels. Scripps acquired Food Network in 1997, spun DIY out of HGTV in September 1999 and launched Fine Living in March 2002.
Somewhat out of character, Scripps acquired Nashville-based Great American Country (GAC) in November 2004, but Scripps says it matches its other channels because country-music fans are passionate about their music, just as HGTV and Food Network fans are about decorating homes and preparing great meals. Scripps did stumble with the Shop At Home network, which it acquired in 2003 and sold off in 2006 after failing to make the synergy work.
For fiscal 2006, Scripps Networks revenue was up 17% to $1.1 billion, and profit rose 25% to $517 million. Broadcast television, helped by record-setting political spending, logged revenues of $364 million, up 14%, and profit of $121 million, up 37%.
With broadband deployed in more than half the country, Scripps has worked hard to expand its brands to the Internet. Besides companion sites for each cable network, Scripps Interactive incorporates HGTVPro.com, a business-to-business site; HGTV Kitchen Design, a broadband channel; and FoodNetwork.com, which also has its own broadband channel. Collectively, the companion sites attract 13.5 million unique visitors every month, according to Scripps.
“My philosophy has always been that the best defense is a good offense,” Lowe says. “So it's important to look at where your competitors might exploit your weakness and fill those gaps yourself. We try to take advantage of areas in which our audiences can be splintered even further. We've continued to attack all of those lifestyle categories that we're already in.”
Unsurprisingly, HGTV.com and DIYnetwork.com were the first- and second-highest-rated home-and-garden sites on the Internet in December 2006, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings, while Foodnetwork.com was the top-ranked Website in the food-and-cooking category.
At Scripps Interactive Media, which includes online-comparison-shopping services Shopzilla and uSwitch, the fourth quarter saw profits of $28.3 million on revenue of $86.6 million.
Scripps networks' rapid expansion into interactive media is not accidental. According to Lowe's peers, he has been focused on infusing the channels with interactivity since he launched them.
“Unlike most TV networks,” says Jablin, “Ken wanted consumers to be able to contact the network and feel like they were able to exchange ideas with us. In an unheard-of business move, he set up a call center where people could call or write us and ask questions about what they were seeing on the air. They responded in huge numbers.”
Says Lowe, “I felt this way from day one. I spent a lot of time with consumers, just doing shoe-leather research, buying myself a cup of coffee and walking around Lowe's [home-improvement chain, to which he is not related] and asking people questions.
“It quickly became very obvious that a lot of this programming could not just be 'one way.'” In other words, it had to be interactive.
Lowe also believes the networks must be both entertaining and informative. Those attributes translated perfectly into an online experience, says Scripps Networks President John Lansing: “Our content is designed to allow people to do something when they see it. That utility translates effortlessly onto the online environment.”
In fact, Scripps Websites regularly attract a combined half billion page views a month and bring in $50 million-$60 million in revenue per year, according to Lansing. With online advertising the industry's fastest-growing segment, the sites are increasingly valuable, and the company's broadband networks are expected to be profitable by the end of this year, he says.
Even after building a multimedia empire, one of the things Lowe enjoys most is his shoe-leather market research: “I still spend a lot of time out talking to folks in stores. I just love to think about what the trends are.”