About 10 months into his tenure as general manager of lifestyle channel Z Living, Rafe Oller is well on his way to transforming the channel from a health information network to a health entertainment network.
By roughly doubling the number of homes where Z Living is available in less than a year — the programmer says its approaching 40 million homes now, and hopes to be in 50 million by the end of 2016 — Z Living appears to be realizing the potential Oller saw in the channel when he joined last September, after stints at Fox and Warner Bros. Entertainment Group.
“I didn’t sign up for what this network is,” Oller said. “I signed up for what I know it could be.”
SAILING ROUGH SEAS
Oller joined Z Living after an embarrassing series of personnel issues rocked the company: a discrimination lawsuit filed against the network and parent Asia TV by former head of marketing Michael Snyder in 2014; the earlier departure of its CEO; and layoffs in its New York offices.
Oller, who joined the network formerly known as Veria Living after those issues surfaced, said he has had no issues with the parent company, which has given his team freedom to make decisions and run the U.S. business, he said.
“My relationship with the parent company is excellent,” Oller said in an interview. “We all feel very welcome. We’re all rowing in the same direction, which is establishing a really great network.”
Helping move the boat along has been the number of distribution deals Oller and his team have been able to secure in the past few months alone.
In June, Z Living renewed its distribution deal with satellite-TV provider Dish Network, an agreement that puts the channel in 11 million homes and includes carriage on its over-the-top platform Sling TV. This month, it renewed with AT&T’s U-verse TV, adding another 5 million homes in the telco-TV service’s Top 200 programming package, where Z Living is grouped with Scripps Networks Interactive’s lifestyle networks.
Those deals are in addition to Z Living’s current carriage on Altice USA (formerly Cablevision Systems), Verizon Communications’s Fios TV, General Communication Inc., RCN, Buckeye Broadband and Comcast’s Chicago system. Other deals are expected this year.
Oller has tried to broaden the network’s focus, away from just providing information to providing entertainment. In that vein, the network green-lighted four new original series in April that will air in the fourth quarter: Finding Fido, hosted by canine expert Seth Casteel, which matches dog-owners-to-be with the perfect pet; Altar’d, a reality program where couples undergo separate 90-day weight loss and healthy lifestyle programs and don’t see each other until their wedding day; The Big Fat Truth, hosted by Extreme Weight Loss and The Biggest Loser executive producer JD Roth; and Yoga Girls, a docu-soap that follows two groups of Los Angeles yoga instructors as they try to build their client lists and brands.
Two of those shows (Finding Fido and The Big Fat Truth) are part of a larger development deal with unscripted producer 3 Ball Entertainment. Z Living also has reached deals with producers Ebersol Lanigan Co. and Popsugar. The Popsugar deal will include series for both the linear network and online.
Oller wouldn’t say how much Z Living is spending on original programming, but said the network is doling out about the same per episode as comparable channels from Scripps Networks and A+E Networks.
Networks across the board are investing in original programming to help differentiate themselves, which has helped fragment audiences, according to a recent report by Morgan Stanley media analyst Ben Swinburne.
According to Swinburne, there are 111 new scripted series slated for the 2016-17 TV season from broadcasters alone, an increase of 9% from the prior year. That makes it harder for consumers to navigate through the lineup, but it helps networks to stand out come carriage-renewal time. And though smaller, independent networks are sometimes easier to single out when distributors are looking to pare down their lineups, Oller said distributors are beginning to realize the benefits of tapping into the $1.8 trillion fitness and healthy lifestyle market.
Oller said he understands that fitness equipment sales don’t necessarily translate into fitness viewers, but by providing a mixture of information shows — mainly geared toward morning workout regimens — and entertainment programming later in the day, the network should capture a broader audience.
Health and fitness is attracting a broader scope of people. Oller said that three out of four Americans are either becoming healthier or are working out regularly, weight loss shows like The Biggest Loser are getting big ratings on broadcast TV and even the grocery aisles are reflecting changing attitudes.
Oller pointed to a time not too long ago when Horizon milk was the only organic food product available in most grocery stores. Now, there are entire sections of the supermarket dedicated to organic foods, which, despite their sometimes-higher prices, are gaining popularity. More than half of millennials are buying organic.
“Welcome to the era of the $7 heirloom tomato,” Oller said.