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Food, Glorious Food

3/12/2010 8:27 AM Eastern

Satisfying America’s appetite
for food-centric series seems
impossible these days. While
the expert stand-and-stir cooking
shows continue to be a breadand-
butter staple, the food genre
has blossomed in the past four or
five years with character-driven
docuseries and entertaining
competition shows — and with
high definition, the experience is
so vivid you can almost taste it.

Perhaps the biggest difference in
the cooking show category is that
today’s shows aren’t so much about
how to cook food as they are about
the entertainment value of watching
people cook it. “Presentation of food
on television is broadly entertaining,”
said Frances Berwick, executive
vice president of programming
and production for Bravo, home to
the cooking competition hit Top
Chef and franchise spinoffs Top Chef
Masters and Just Desserts.

That shift from education to entertainment
has driven higher ratings
for the category, a change in
the audience makeup and has led
to more shows on more networks.

“Food is a really rich playground
filled with competitive egos and
dramatic people and beautiful
visuals,” said Bob Tuschman, senior
vice president of production
and programming for Scripps
Networks Interactive-owned Food
Network. The 16-year-old Food has
seen its ratings among 25-to-54-
year-olds grow roughly 54% since
2004 with its primetime gumbo of
Iron Chef, The Next Food Network
Star and The Best Thing I Ever Ate
.

Today’s food-centric TV consumers
are vastly different from
those who tuned into public-TV
stations some 40-plus years ago to
watch The French Chef with Julia
Child, the subject of last summer’s
runaway hit movie, Julie & Julia.

“Viewers of Top Chef typically
aren’t people who want to cook
themselves, they are just foodies,”
said Berwick. “They like food;
they like eating in restaurants;
they like being wowed by talented
chefs and are interested in seeing
the process as it happens.”

New cooks have entered the
kitchen. Cooking Channel — set
to supplant Scripps’ Fine Living
Network on May 31 — is looking
to wow new-generation food fans
by bringing some familiar faces,
along with a host of new culinary
masters from the U.S. and abroad,
to the latest 24-hour food network.
It was expected last Friday (Feb.
19) to announce six of the new
original shows that will be on its
roster at launch.

Some programs will showcase
Food Network talent in different
ways, Scripps Networks senior vice
president of communications Cindy
McConkey said. To wit: a new
series from Rachael Ray, A Week in
a Day
, about advance meal planning;
barbecue ace Bobby Flay’s
new show, Brunch With Bobby; and
Emeril’s Fast and Fresh (working title),
with chef Emeril Lagasse. Introducing
new talent, Toronto chef
Chuck Hughes hosts Chuck’s Day
Off
. Targeting ethnic fare will be
Trinidian chef Roger Mooking’s
Everyday Exotic. And Laura Calder
tackles a popular cuisine genre in
French Food at Home.

“The interest in food and cooking
has exploded so much that
we felt if we didn’t launch a second
food channel then somebody
else like Discovery [Communications]
or one of the other major
networks would beat us to it,” said
Cooking Channel general manager
Michael Smith. “If it were just
a superficial genre interest in the
way that entertainment genres
seem to come and go, we probably
would have been more cautious
about it. But we see some
basic changes in the American
lifestyle and culture that make us
feel this is a long-term trend.”

Added Smith: “It’s almost like
cooking from scratch without a
recipe — you throw in some flour
and throw in some eggs, then add
some sugar and baking soda, and
you should get muffins.”

Cooking, which inherits FLN’s
nearly 55 million subscribers, expects
to announce 14 new (or at
least new to the U.S.) programs
by launch. The network will have
about 60%-70% new original shows,
McConkey said, and will feature an
eclectic slate of how-to shows, travel,
history and documentary series
centered on diet and nutrition, as
well as ethnic cuisine geared to a
more astute palette.

Smith said the Cooking Channel’s
target viewer is the “Julie Powell”
character from Julie & Julia. “It’s
the college student who has cocktail
parties in their dorm room, or a
young mom who wants to introduce
her kids to exotic foods. At all levels,
people are just more into wanting to
dive deeper into the topic of food.”

Travel Channel has stirred the
pot, too, with shows such as Man
vs. Food and Food Wars. “It adds
to what brings a destination to life
in your own home,” said Travel
Channel senior vice president of
content Michael Klein. “It’s like a
great bottle of wine from Argentina,
you open it up and suddenly
it’s the smell of Argentina, and that
to me is why I believe you’re seeing
such a surge in this. In tough
times, when things are bumpy, it’s
a memory of a simpler time, when
life was just a little bit better.”

While the economic downturn
has prompted some to start rattling
the pots and pans at home,
only 57% of meals in this country
are home-cooked, “and there
is some sense that cooking on TV
is replacing cooking in our real
lives,” says Michael Pollan, journalist
and author of Food Rules,
a follow-up to his best-seller Th e
Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural
History of Four Meals. He serves
as special consultant to the awardwinning
documentary, Food, Inc.,
which will air April 21 on PBS.

“One of the things I preach to
people is, it’s really important to
cook. It’s important to your health,
it’s important to the farmers and
it’s important to your family life
— cooking meals together — and
people tell me they don’t have time
to cook.”

In a recent article in The New
York Times, Pollan cited other
causes for this perplexing paradox:
more women are now working outside
of the home; food companies
are persuading Americans to let
them do the cooking; and technological
advances have made it easier
to forego preparing meals.

But, said Pollan, “if we would
just take some of that time we’re
spending watching people cook
on TV and just do it, we’d be so
much better off .”

Sharing Pollan’s back-to-basics
theology, The Fabulous Beekman
Boys, premiering June 16 on
Planet Green, follows the journey
of cosmopolitan couple Josh
Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge
as would-be farmers in upstate
New York producing everything
they use, from soap to cheese, the
old-fashioned way.

For Planet Green, food programming
is about “food sourcing and
food politics,” said president and
general manager Laura Michalchyshyn.
“The food genre is such a
challenging one, but it’s such a natural
for what we’re doing on Planet
Green focusing environmentalism
and ecology and passionate people
doing forward thinking things.”

Forward thinking is what Ben
Roche and Homaro Cantu do in
their show Future Food, set for a
June debut on Planet Green. The
show follows the noted Chicago
restaurateurs as they replicate
traditional foods like steak, sushi
or a root beer float by using organic
or vegan sources.

It’s “food science,” Michalchyshyn
said, explaining the crux
of the show. “This is not The Joy of
Cooking — it’s all about creating a
new design, a new model for what
we will be eating.”

Cable has come a long way from
the salad days, where the hottest
thing on a then fledgling Food Network
was a little show called How
to Boil Water and a fresh-faced
Louisiana chef named Emeril Lagasse
(who’s now a docuseries star
on Planet Green).

Currently reaching nearly 100
million homes, Food Network has
grown into a lifestyle cottage industry,
spawning the wildly successful
two-year-old Hearst magazine imprint
which regularly features series
talent like Paula Deen (Paula’s
Home Cooking), Alton Brown (Good
Eats), Duff Goldman (Ace of Cakes),
Guy Fieri (Diners, Drive-ins and
Dives), Giada De Laurentiis (Giada
at Home) and husband-and-wife
team Pat and Gina Neely (Down
Home With the Neelys), who have
become some of the most recognizable
names in television.

“We’re always looking for very memorable, relatable funny, inspirational and outsized
personalities, people who can really bring the world to
life,” said Tuschman. “You have to have huge personalities
that people will want to invite back and spend time
with night after night.”

Personalities draw audiences to BBC America, with a
pair of imports — the renowned U.K. chef and restaurateur
Raymond Blanc’s restaurant competition series, Last
Restaurant Standing, and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares
and Gordon Ramsay’s F Word (where the “f” stands for
“food”), featuring the antics of Gordon Ramsay, have become
a welcome international treat.

“What makes some of our personalities so distinct are
their British-ness and their view of their country and of
the U.S.,” said BBCA senior vice president of programming
Richard De Croce. “Th e ingredients and the measurements
are often diff erent in the U.K. — or they may have the same
ingredient but have a diff erent word for it — or use an ingredient
we don’t use in the U.S., that’s why the talent and
the personalities have to really drive the show. Is it someone
you can’t take your eyes off ? Is it somebody that you’ll
watch do anything, let alone cook?”

BBC America is now looking to bring U.K. culinary alchemist
Heston Blumenthal, owner of the Michelin three-star
restaurant Th e Fat Duck, and his science-minded approach to
cooking to its developing lineup of food-based shows. “People
come to us for something different, so we’ve really got to
grab people with a tweak on the format,” said De Croce.

IFC is putting their indie-style spin on food with two
eclectic series set to return on April 27: Food Party and Dinner
With the Band, featuring New York chef Sam Mason.

“For us, it was all about the tone and the hosts,” said IFC executive
vice president and general manager Jennifer Caserta.

Mason is an accredited chef, restaurant owner and
James Beard Award winner, “but his approach to food is
unique,” Caserta said. “He’ll do things like bell pepper
martinis. It’s very indie, and he blends that with his love
of indie music. With Food Party, its psychedelic sets and
puppets and this adorable fringe artist host who takes you
on this adventure based in food. We think of it as Rachael
Ray meets Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

As food stars rise in the industry, hawking a cacophony
of products — from aprons to Zinfandel — some showrunners
fear overexposure threatens the very thing that made
these personalities special in the first place: the cooking.

“I think celebrity raises a flag about anything that is artisanal,”
said John Markus executive producer of TLC’s freshman
competition docuseries BBQ Pitmasters, starring
three-time char champion Myron Mixon. “I get worried about
restaurants and product endorsements and all those things,
because that’s what our culture promotes. It’s not enough that
you do it well. You have to be famous for doing it well.”

With so many shows, is there a chance of audience burnout?
Although viewers have yet to get their fill of food programming,
no genre has been immune to oversaturation.

“My comeback to that is, ‘There’s always room for Jell-O,’”
laughed Eileen O’Neill, president and general manager of
TLC, where success has been sweet with Ultimate Cake-Off
and Cake Boss, starring New Jersey baker Buddy Valastro.
Th is spring, the channel whips up its latest show focused on America’s favorite foods and just announced filming on a series
about a sister-owned cupcake shop in Washington D.C.

Added O’Neill: “The question is, Can good shows break
through? The whole home-property arena went through a
large expansion, and there are cultural issues that have taken
away from that rather than exhaustion on the genre —
with what we’re all going through with the economy —but
food is so core to everybody that there’s a lot of real estate for
it, and advertisers are looking to be a part of that world.”

That said, Bravo’s Berwick admitted surprise “at how broad
the category has become, just looking at how many networks
including the broadcast networks now, have food on,” she said.
Television is offering today’s food fans a sensory experience
that magazines and cookbooks can’t capture, said
Travel Channel senior director of content Charlie Parsons.

“Really an important layer to it, quite frankly, is audio,”
said Parsons. “In a magazine you can look at a delicious
looking burger or dish, but you can’t hear the butter snapping
and popping, you can’t hear the ‘Mmmm’s’ and ‘Oh my
goodness!’ and all these comments from these people, you
can’t hear the bubbling of the lobster when it’s boiled.

“It’s that audio experience that makes that dish — that
makes that kitchen — jump off the screen and land in your living
room. It becomes a much more emotional experience.”