Scripps Looks to Spread the Love for ‘Pickler & Ben’

It’s a Wednesday, and Ben Aaron and Kellie Pickler are horsing around on the set of their Nashville-based show, Pickler & Ben, which set designer Anton Goss created to look like a home straight off of HGTV.

“It’s the show I’ve always wanted to do,” said Aaron, who previously appeared on WNBC’s locally produced New York Live and as the cohost of NBCUniversal’s short-lived syndicated strip Crazy Talk.

“When I got it, my wife [Good Morning America’s Ginger Zee] said, ‘This is what you’ve been waiting for.’ This feels 100% right. It’s everything I’ve always wanted in a show.”

Country-music star Pickler and her husband, Kyle Jacobs, a country star in his own right, live in Nashville, where the show is produced out of Skyway Studios in front of a live audience. Aaron commutes each week from New York.

“It made so much sense to us to set a show in the heartland,” said Cater Lee, Scripps VP of programming, who heard the initial pitch for the show from country star Faith Hill. “So many of our affiliates are in the heartland and it’s an underserved audience. Country is the No. 1 music format in the country.” Now, there’s a plan afoot to expand the show’s reach beyond its mostly Scripps-owned affiliates.

Opposites Attract Audience

The combination of Pickler and Aaron is a winning one, giving the show a country-mouse-meets-city-mouse feel, which provides some of the fun.

“Kellie grew up in a town with one stop sign, while Ben is from Manhattan,” said Scripps President of Local Media Brian Lawlor. “Their experience and perspective is totally different. They were so fascinated and intrigued by each other from the first moment they met.”

With Pickler and Aaron providing the host chemistry, the show has focused on featuring a mix of regular people and celebrities.

“What has really popped for us is featuring real people,” said executive producer Lisa Erspamer, who previously produced The Oprah Winfrey Show and served as chief creative officer and executive VP of programming and development for OWN. “TV and entertainment in general is about making people feel something. We are always trying to entertain our audience while giving them takeaways.”

As a result, Pickler & Ben has produced segments honoring teachers, including Pickler’s own high-school drama teacher; hanging out with firefighters, with Pickler being particularly speedy and adept at ascending and descending an 85-foot ladder; and just doing segments in their own studio, such as laying out a fun Super Bowl spread with Food Network’s Sunny Anderson.

“We get to be a part of things that matter,” said Pickler, who is perhaps best known to viewers from her stint on season five of Fox’s American Idol. “We clock into work, and then we get to spend the day with family and friends. And we’ve been encouraging our affiliates to send us stories from their hometowns. People in those communities are doing great things, and we like to showcase what they are doing and how they are giving back by giving them something in return.”

The first-season show is currently cleared in 42 markets covering more than 30% of the country, as well as on Viacom-owned cable network CMT. Since its launch in September, the show has held steady at a 0.3 live-plus-same-day household rating, although it’s difficult to gauge how that compares to its talk competition, since those shows are cleared across most of the country.

Meanwhile, Pickler & Ben is gaining a social following, particularly on Facebook, where it boasts 129,000 followers and counting.

“I like to gauge the show by the social numbers,” Aaron said. “The surprising thing for me, considering the number of markets that we’re in, is that we’ve already had 30 million views of our videos in the four months that we’ve been on the air.”

A Plan to Expand

Scripps hopes to expand on all of that in season two, announced as a go at NATPE in Miami last month, with Disney-ABC Television shopping the show to stations.

“We’re adding markets as we speak,” Lawlor said. “Since NATPE, we’ve signed more than a dozen new stations and we’re getting calls every day.”

Some of those stations will start running the strip at midseason, while others will wait to launch until the fall, Lawlor said.

To Scripps’ advantage is the lack of new talk product in the market: “Shows that are being launched right now are focused on crime and gossip or they are repurposed investigative shows,” Lawlor said. “There’s nothing in daytime that’s fresh and focused on families. We are expecting by season two to have significant clearances.”

Should that pan out, it will buck a trend in syndication. Typically, shows launched by local station groups tend to have trouble getting picked up by rival station groups, although Scripps also launched RightThisMinute, along with Cox and Raycom, and that show has now been on the air for seven seasons. It’s a trend other station groups — and Tegna in particular, which has Sony shopping Daily Blast Live across the country — would like to see reversed as they work to create their own programs as studios retreat from the first-run business.

“The paradigm is changing,” Lawlor said. “This show looks big, feels big and it has big guests. It answers the question of whether a local media company could create a quality show that is scalable.”

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for more than 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for The Global Entertainment Marketing Academy of Arts & Sciences (G.E.M.A.). She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997 - September 2002.