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Travel Channel Seeks Connections Over Destinations

Complete Coverage from B&C: Upfront Central

Scripps Networks Interactive’s version of the Travel Channel arrives at this year’s upfront with a new lifestyle outlook and at least 20 new shows to introduce.

“Travel is more than a destination. It’s about what happens along the way, what happens while you’re there and what happens when you leave that destination as well,” says Laureen Ong, who has been busy turning Travel into a lifestyle channel like Scripps’ HGTV and Food Network since being named president a year ago.

Less of Travel’s programming will be travelogues with an anonymous voiceover describing far-off wonders. “It’s very hard to build loyalty and an audience with one-off shows,” Ong says. Travel will focus more on personalities— or “trusted guides”—to build emotional links between shows and viewers. “You get there by having someone to connect you,” she adds.

Under the new slogan “Travel Here,” Ong is also taking a broader view of what travel means. It’s not about a two-week vacation: “People are traveling differently, and whether it’s around the block or around the world, every day you go somewhere.” That philosophy favors domestic locations (which tend to draw higher ratings than international ones), and permits new reality-style shows looking at a moving company in Boston or bike messengers in New York.

Travel Channel has been a corporate orphan with a series of owners since launching in 1987. Before Scripps, it was owned by Cox Communications, which acquired it from Discovery in 2007. Fortunately, previous management did some good things with the brand, Ong says. They cut the cord with the World Poker Tour, which despite high ratings was not a good property to build a Travel brand around, she says. They also found tent-pole personalities in Anthony Bourdain, Adam Richman, Andrew Zimmern and Zak Bagans.

From a financial point of view, the January 2010 acquisition clicked almost immediately for Scripps. Travel’s 2010 revenue rose 5.4% to $68.1 million. Anthony DiClemente of Barclays Capital estimates that the network’s earnings rose 42% to $117 million in 2010 and will increase another 20% in 2011. Travel “will benefit from crosspromotion of network programming and vertical integration with the other [Scripps] networks’ existing advertisers. With broad distribution and ample room for affiliate fee and advertising revenue growth, we expect the Travel Channel to build shareholder value for many years to come,” DiClemente says.

Ong believes the channel also had a good story for ad buyers. Its viewers are upscale, fairly young and mostly male. Unfortunately, Travel had only a few good shows to sell. “We worked those shows to death,” Ong says. Viewership rose 8% and the network asked sponsors to stick with it while new talent-driven shows were developed. “Hang in there because there’s going to be some great stuff next year,” was the message.

Now the new programming is arriving. Bourdain’s No Reservations returned last month, with a visit to tough areas of Haiti. An upcoming show from Cuba “is going to be huge for us,” Ong says.

Travel’s new programming team, led by former VH1 executive Fred Graver, is revamping current shows, including Richman’s. It is becoming Man Vs. Food Nation, with fans tackling food challenges with tips from the host, starting June 1. Ghost Adventures will focus on iconic locations that might be haunted. To get its viewers to spend more time with the channel, Paranormal Challenge will debut in June, hosted by Bagans, with two teams racing to find ghosts.

Mancations, featuring two real-life friends who hit fun locations around the world, starts in June. In Off Limits, Don Wildman takes viewers to places they didn’t know existed—and aren’t allowed in. Travel is also bringing back Made in America, with new host George Most, in July.

New reality-style shows include Deathwish Movers, about a Boston company that transports items other companies can’t move, which started last week; Triple Rush, about New York bike messengers, launches in April.

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