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Executive Interviews: Judith Orlowski, Fine Living Network

Faculty Note: Television programming veteran Judith Orlowski is the new Vice President of Development and Acquisitions at Fine Living. She has brought three new acquired series to the air in 4Q 07: Design Inc. with Sarah Richardson, Wedding SOS and The Heat with Mark McEwan. Additionally, she is the exec in charge of production on Top 20 Travel Tips, Top 20 New Parent Tricks, Top Ten 401(k) Mistakes and Money Terms You Need to Know. Here are Judith’s answers to CableU’s “Enlightening Eleven” questions:

What is the key element that makes a program right for your network?

Two things: Tone and subject matter. First its gotta be something that works with the environment that we’ve created. We have three primary categories that we program to: relationships, entertaining, and home. But FLN has a slightly more fun attitude – like all Scripps nets, FLN provides info, but unlike the other nets like HGTV, we aren’t beating you over the head with it. Primetime is for info-tainment – you got home from work and don’t want to be lectured. You wanna have some fun and relaxation, and if you pick up an idea or tip, cool, but its really about enjoying yourself while you check FLN out.

What programs and/or genres are you looking for in the next year?

As I mentioned above, we do home, especially real estate as the major investment it is. But we are more urban, more open to condo and apartment living, and exploring the work of real estate and the characters that work in it. We are different from HGTV because we aren’t talking to the suburban audience, as much as the Top 25 DMAs and their environs, where folks who have real disposable income tend to live.

Our most exciting category of the last year has been relationships – we have shows about dating, getting married, dealing with being married and trying to find common ground. We are producing originals and also picking up licenses from here and abroad.

We also explore the cocktail culture – entertaining at home, or going out to restaurants and bars with friends and family to celebrate and enjoy life. And its the hardest category to fill – for years there was never liquor on the air, but things are changing and we are capitalizing on it. And its not boozing – its entertaining – we all do it – “let’s meet for a drink after work” or “hey, heard the food is great there so I’m going to get a reservation.” We even do it at the markets – how many deals have we all closed after getting to know someone at a cocktail party thrown by one of your 300 closest friends at the market….

Its hard to find, because I keep getting pitched cooking shows. But I need to fill the category without doing dump-and-stir food porn because, we already gotta channel doing that … you might have heard of it – the FOOD NETWORK!

How important are other platforms like broadband and mobile applications in the initial pitch?

It's always nice to have the full package, but its never going to break a deal if everything doesn’t fall into place. Our online folks are a separate division, and sometimes they have their own priorities and programming needs to move on an idea because if we don’t have new stuff, then we go to black. First, get me a great idea, then we’ll work out all the details and/or kinks later.

What’s the best way for a producer to pitch you?

I’m probably more open to any manner than a lot of folks. At WE, Bridezillas was an offhand remark that turned into a monster – ha! I’ve had cocktail napkin pitches that got made, 3 color and 15 page bound pitches that didn’t – emails, phoners, elevator pitches. First you sign a release, until then, I heard nothing as Sgt Schultz said on Hogan’s Heroes. Then, however you deliver the pitch, if there’s a nugget of an idea that works for us, we’ll work it through with you to get what we need. I guess, less is more. Synthesize the pitch to the BIG IDEA – even I probably won’t read the entire 15 pages thoroughly.

What do you look for in a first-time producer besides a great idea?

Well, its always nice if you’ve worked for someone I know or on a show (and got credit for it on screen) in a major capacity. Duh, no brainer. But otherwise, if you don’t have the necessary street cred, as long as you are open to the idea that I’ll probably wanna place a supe with you that I know can get the job done, at least in the early days, then we should be able to work something out. Nobody was born knowing how to do anything after all…

What mistakes do producers make when pitching you?

Basically not knowing their materials or what I’m already doing. Pitching me the show I already have is not the best idea, unless you got the spin that makes it new and fresh. Or if I say no, don’t keep pitching me. Just cuz that one doesn’t work doesn’t mean you’ll never get another chance. I’ll still take your calls … really, I will.

What can global programmers learn from the US cable network market and from your network in particular?

Really the only thing that international programmers can learn from us is we know a good idea when we steal one, I mean hear one – remember, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The United States is so enormous and so diverse, its hard to extrapolate to the rest of the world. The EU is big, but its not one entity, but here we have to find one voice that appeals to the biggest group of folks. Internationally there is government subsidies so that little groups can have big voices. That’s not the kinda business model that can work here. All I can say is try it, maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t, but without risk there is no big reward.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? Ever given?

The best advice I ever got was “You know the best thing about you is that you don’t care what anyone thinks about you. You know the worst thing about you? You don’t care what anyone thinks about you. Learn to play to management.”

The best advice I’ve ever given is to remind folks I’ve worked for that there is some stellar stuff coming outta the rest of the English speaking world and we should be open to exploring it for our air. FLN has licensed shows from Canada, Australia and the UK, and with a tweak here, and a bit of sub-titling (yes, English!) there, the FLN audience is watching the best the world has to offer in our categories. And liking what they see.

Who in this industry do you most admire and why?

Mark Burnett. He just saw a good idea, decided he was gonna change careers, starting pitching networks and launched the reality industry, which I love. Truth is always so much stranger than fiction. And let’s say it together, reality is here to stay.

What’s the smartest programming decision you have ever made? Dumbest?

Smartest move ever was begging, whining, pleading with senior management to take a chance on a show I knew was gonna be good and a hit, and harassing them into letting me make the deal, though they said I could only do it if the money spent was small, so I had to call in some favors to get the price, but it worked like I knew it would and went on to be a signature series for the network.

Dumbest move ever? Starting work at a new channel in a multi channel environment and not spending the first week or so walking around to meet my counter parts at the other nets. So what happens? Within a month, I try to close a film library deal, and get into a bidding war WITH THE GUY DOWN THE HALLWAY! Played by a licensor. Rookie mistake.

In all of television, which classic program should be revived? Should NEVER be revived?

Its already happened! Cartoon Network is bringing back the Banana Splits! Fleagle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky. Now I’ll be singing that stupid theme song all night … oh, maybe, that should never have been revived ... da, da, da, nahnahnah, da, da, da, nah-nah-nah-nah….

More about Judith:

Prior to her current post at Fine Living Judith was the vice president of program scheduling and acquisitions for HGTV (Home & Garden Television), a newly created position within Scripps Networks, where she managed all aspects of the HGTV program schedule, and facilitated all program acquisitions for the network. During her tenure at Knoxville, TN- based HGTV, she contributed significantly to 20% ratings increases over two years, and acquired the well-received real estate strip series, BUY ME, from Canada.

Prior to joining Scripps, Orlowski most recently served as vice president of program planning and acquisitions for WE: Women’s Entertainment in New York. She was credited with closing major deals with Miramax, FOX and UNIVERSAL; initiating the channel into off-network syndication with the Keri Russell starrer “Felicity” from Buena Vista; and co-producing two of the WE signature original series franchises, Bridezillas and Single in the City. Her experience in program research, acquisitions, planning and scheduling includes previous positions with AMC Networks and HBO.

A fixture at TV Markets and Film Festivals and Markets, Orlowski is a native of Boston, Mass., and holds Masters degrees in Business and the Arts and Media from New York University and Boston University.