Food Network, heading into the upfront selling season, is like a successful restaurant tinkering with its menu, still presenting the delectables it's famous for, while sprinkling in some new appetizers and entrees.
No wonder network president Brooke Johnson declared to some 600 media buyers on Tuesday here at Cipriani during Scripps Networks Interactive's upfront presentation that Food's bill of fare contains four key ingredients: "younger," "richer," "cooler" and "bigger."
To the former, Johnson noted that over the past five years, the median age of the Food watcher has dropped from 48 to 43. As for affluence, the network appeals to one of cable's most upscale groups. Cooler comes in the sense that the service's daytime and primetime recipes have audiences "buzzing."
Bigger refers to the Nielsens, with whom Food enjoyed its best year ever in 2008 among adults 25 to 54 and 18 to 49, as well as with women of those ages.
Aided by three-course competition show Chopped, the momentum continued in the first quarter 2009, with double-digit gains to 1.02 million average viewers in primetime, 511,000 adults 25 to 54 and 483,000 adults 18 to 49. The net's total-day audience average spiked 9% to 660,000.
The network's daytime "In The Kitchen" lineup continues to serve up top genre names in Paula Deen, The Neelys, Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentis, Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri.
Those will be complemented by the second season of Viva Daisy (July), in which Daisy Martinez shares tips on Latin cuisine; What Would Brian Boitano Make?, other than toe loops and Olympic gold medals in figure skating (August);
Sandra's Money Saving Meals, featuring budget-saving recipes from Sandra Lee; and Take On The Takeout in 2010, when Danny Boome will visit delivery devotees with one thing in mind: to prepare them healthier, tastier and cheaper versions of the take-out dish.
In primetime, where Fieri is the current network king with his Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives series, will add the sixth season of The Next Food Network Star (Fieri emerged after donning this chef's hat) in June, The Next Iron Chef (the second bows in October) and a third go-round with Ultimate Recipe Showdown (second quarter).
New to the menu: Chefs Vs. City (November), in which chefs Chris Cosentino and Aaron Sanchez are pitted against two local foodies in a different municipality each week; the miniseries Foods That Changed The World (Q3), hosted by the "guru of grub" Alton Brown; and Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin (September), where the wildlife expert and conservationist will explore human culture through natives' regional cuisine.
"Jeff is a real foodie," said Food senior vice president of ad sales Karen Grinthal after the presentation. "The travel and adventure shows work well for us."
Network executives also believe that Worst Cooks in America will be sampled frequently when it comes off the burner next January. Chefs Anne Burrell and Beau MacMillan will each take on a team of six hopeless home cooks and try to lift their pots and pans within 10 days. Challenges will reduce the field to two, who must then prepare a three-course meal for a panel of food critics for $25,000 and their mentors' pride and rep.
"Everybody knows somebody like this," said Johnson, noting that contestant pool either will be self-nominated or from those who "have had to endure" the awful cooking.
During its sizzle reel, media planners also got a taste for Food's development slate with Chefs in the City, which puts a face on what personal chefs must abide from the rich and a series; Cup Cake Wars, a look at a business that goes well beyond the bake sale; Will Work For Food, placing participants in all levels of the food-service industry; and chef's picks under the banner of The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
Relative to ad sales, Johnson said was "flat or down a point or two" in the first quarter, gauged against the initial 2008 span, when cable in general and Food in particular benefited from the absence of fresh broadcast fare in the wake of the Writers Guild of America strike.
Grinthal said 2009 has seen "a very active scatter market" and Food has held up well with its brand positioning, incorporating quality shows, strong ratings, upscale audience.
In keeping with Scripps's "Brands For Life" and integration mantras, Food recently rolled out a customized ‘quizine' for Baskin Robbins.
This vignette, loaded in the pod's A position, features a five-second billboard, replete with the advertiser's logo and question that precedes the sponsor's 30-second spot. The answer is then revealed via a five-second wrap after the commercial.
Grinthal said these executions can be secured within five to six weeks, a time frame coincidental to the current market's last-minute whir, where "clients see opportunities and want to go quickly." Typically, customized features are often constructed over a 10- to 12-week span, according to Grinthal.
As for Food's upfront season prospects (at press time, Scripps had made seven of its eight large-scale presentations), Grinthal said it was too early to tell.
"I feel confident. There has been a good response to the presentations, but it's hard to say," she said, expecting that this year's process could continue into August for the network.