Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Food Network, the Decline of Stand and Stir Programming, and Where to Go From Here

Earlier this week, True/Slant’s Michael Greenberg wrote a scathing open letter to Bob Tuschman, the SVP of Programming at Food Network. In it, he rails against their lineup as of late. A few key quotes:

The Next Food Network Star sucks. It’s not entertaining. It has nothing to do with actual culinary skill. And it’s another troubling step in the ultimate devaluation of your network’s brand.”

“Nowadays, prime time on the Food Network is all about competition shows and reality non-fiction programming — and it’s all about folks looking to make a name and buck. The food is just an afterthought for you, Bob, and it’s really starting to grate on me.”

“It looks like my beloved Food Network has succumbed to the reality-show dreck that pollutes other once-innovative TV networks, like MTV and VH1.”

As a food freak, I agree with some of Michael’s points. I want gentle, informative instruction in my cooking shows, not all this reality stuff. Why so many cake wars when you can show Ina, Giada, and (oh lord, please bring her back) Sara?

Because (with the notable exception of Ace of Cakes), verité programming becomes pretty dull after awhile. Look, it's nice that you can make fondant that looks like Shrek. But can someone tell us how to create fondant in the first place? I’ve watched approximately 50,000 Food Network shows, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen step-by-step instructions.


As someone working in cable television, I think Michael’s out of his mind.

When it comes to TV, righteous indignation tends to garner support. Especially on the internet, it rallies idealists to your side. But often, it ignores real-life situations like technology, demographic shifts, industry changes, and financial needs. Michael may lament Food Network turning into VH1, but you know what? VH1’s ratings have never been higher than the last few years, when reality programming has taken over the schedule. However you feel about Bret Michaels or Guy Fieri, they run rings around Charlie Rose and C-Span.

At its heart, television is a business. An occasionally ruthless, often pandering business that’s chief purpose is to make money for advertisers. It does that through ratings, and subsequently, will broadcast almost whatever it takes to garner those eyes. In some cases, that’s Food Network Challenge. In others, it’s the truly charming Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. It still others, it’s Unwrapped (which - I feel like I’ve seen the same dang conveyor belt 200 times now).

However you feel about these shows, they rate. Someone is watching this stuff. Usually, it's me. Or you. Or your mom. If you don't like it, change the channel. It's not like there aren't a million other options.

If you want elegance, pick up a Julia Child cookbook. Read Saveur or Bon Appétit. Change the channel to PBS, where I’m pretty sure you’ll never see Lidia Bastianich competing on Chopped (which I actually think is a fun show). As with music or movies, it's up to each individual to take advantage of non-traditional outlets, if they so choose.

But if you want cooking shows designed to appeal to the widest possible swath of Americans, go to Food Network. Because odds are, you’re one of those people, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Odds are, Alton Brown, Emeril, or even Ray-Ray got you interested in cooking in the first place. Odds are, you’ve watched one of those reality shows and thought, “Wow. I didn’t know you could do that with celery root.”

Ultimately, this it isn’t to say we shouldn’t reach for the stars, or try to get the best possible programming on television for all to see. The quality of our mass media says a lot about the intellectual interests of our country. What it IS to say is that we have to accept that certain outlets are businesses. They exist to make money, not to achieve indie cred.

So readers, I turn this one over to you. If you ran Food Network what kind of shows would you create? What would they look like? Who would host them? What kind of cuisine would you make? What issues would you tackle?

P.S. Quite a few Serious Eaters compared Food Network's current slate to MTV's lifestyle programming, which I thought was interesting. MTV stopped playing videos because they’re pretty much the lowest-rated things you can put on TV without resorting to infomercials. Kids aren’t the same as they were in 1987 – they’re not going to watch a Ne-Yo video and then stick around for the Jonas Brothers. Also, get off my lawn!

P.P.S. This didn't relate to inexpensive, healthy food in the least. We'll get back to that tomorrow, I promise.

(Photos courtesy of The Morning News and Operation Bon Appetit.)

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Sarah said...

I too am sick of all the competition, reality shows on Food TV. Give me good hosts cooking good food, please.

I'm going to sound like a total square asking this, but do they really not play music videos AT ALL on MTV anymore? Shows how long it's been since I watched that channel...Man, do I feel old.

Mise En Place said...

I grew up watching PBS cooking shows.
I use to watch lots of Food Network, not so much now.

Alton Brown rules, he's the only reason I watch FN these days. So, let AB take over programing. ;)

Please of the love of all that's good and holy, get rid of the Next Food Network Star train wreak!

Amiyrah said...

I totally agree with Mise En Place. Alton is the one that got me into really cooking because for once, I was given a blow by blow of how and why we do certain things in recipes. That's important to a beginner cook.

I still get excited when a new episode of Good Eats comes on. It's like high school science class...but with a cool teacher that will actually teach you something by the end of class.

Alton rules!

Rina the Mama Bear said...


I heartily, hungrily, 100% agree.

HATE HATE HATE those 'other' shows. It ticks me off that since we VERY recently got extended cable back, I haven't been able to find a regular cooking show yet! I too want Ina (especially, love her show!) and Giada back!! *sob*

Jon said...

Check out this site, it pretty much mirrors these sentiments:

Mike Vrobel said...

If I was to re-make the Food TV lineup, it would look like...well, a lot like it did when it got me interested in cooking in the first place.

Alton Brown's Good Eats is the only Food Network show that I still record on my Tivo. (It's also set to never delete.) So of course, he stays. Ina Garten and Giadia both get to stay, too; I don't watch them often, but they have useful information.

Bring back David Rosengarten, Mario, Sara Moulton, and, of course, Emeril.

Then, in my master stroke...take over the PBS Saturday cooking shows.
America's Test Kitchen, Steven Raichlen, Simply Ming, Lidia, Simply Italia...even "Everyday Food" from Martha Stewart is better than anything else on Food Network right now.

On second thought, maybe I should just make a donation to my local PBS station...

Joy Manning said...

If I were in charge of Food Network programming, I think I would strive for a better balance of food shows. It's true that the network must respond their audience, which sadly seems to be more interested in competition than cooking. As much as I love to cook and learning about cooking, I do also love an episode of Throwdown or Iron Chef America. But there must be a happy medium between what is airing now and the old Mario-and-Sarah dominated line up. It would give long time Food Network loyalists a reason to keep watching.

Jennifer said...

I think I tend to agree with Joy. By the time I get home, most of the day's cooking shows are over, but I do enjoy the reality programming on FN in the summer. It gives me a more wholesome choice to the vulgar and absurd reality shows that plague all of the networks during the summer. It would be nice to have more of a balance, though. I wish Alton was on earlier in the evening.

The next FN Star is boring, but it could be really good if they got a little more creative with it.

I agree that with the current popularity of cake decorating due to shows like CCC, a program teaching beginning cake decorating techniques and simple cake designs and recipes could be really popular.

Rachel said...

Five words: Cooking. With. The. Neelys. 24-7.

In my perfect FN world, I agree that AB, Ina, and Giada get to stay, and let's throw Duff in there for good, fun measure. And, of course, Mario, Lieberman, and Moulton get to come back. I might even nix Bobby Flay, who's throw-some-poblano-in-there approach has kind of lost it's charm for me.

But what I'd really do is this: instead of BS like "Simply Delicioso" or "Hey! We're an Ethnically Diverse Couple Hell-Bent on Giving You Heart Disease," I'd put on shows with actual experts in the field. Who are actually, you know, not white. (GASP!) What about doing a show about Puebla, the Mexican state where most professional chefs come from? Let the chefs cook, and find some slick, semi-food-literate host to do the patter. Or a show where a talented Thai chef who's actually Asian--DOUBLE GASP!--shows you what's up with the 18,000 different kinds of basil.

In the meantime, I'll stick to BBC America, PBS and Fine Living Network. In my house, every time Lidia gets uppity, you drink.

Anonymous said...

I'm rather offended at the idea of grouping Alton Brown in with all the reality junk (and in with Emeril and Rachael Ray too for that matter, since I can't stand either of them). (Please note I am only referring to Good Eats and not the stupid reality stuff Food Network has talked Alton into) Yes Good Eats is more humorous and whatever than your typical old school cooking show, but it still is more similar to that than to this new junk.

And where is my Jamie! Jamie Oliver's been off the Food Channel for WAY too long! Bring back some reruns at the least! (He's another one that I would say was more of an updated version of old school cooking shows - which is not a bad thing)

Updating things is fine... I have to admit I no longer have the patience I had as a child to watch Julia Child or The Frugal Gourmet - but that still doesn't mean I want this reality junk! (proof is the fact that I watch neither Iron Chef America, nor whatever that bike trip show of Alton's is, despite the fact that in my kitchen, Alton's word is law)

Liz C said...

I miss Gale Gand and Jacques Torres! Ah, those were the days. Nowadays, I only watch Alton, Tyler Florence, Ina, Giada, and that woman on Saturday mornings... Secrets of a Restaurant Chef? Alton's the only one I watch without fail. I can't even watch the cake Challenges any more. I used to love them but they've gotten downright stupid.

If Alton ever quits, they're screwed.

Unfortunately, though, you're right and it sucks.

Kristine said...

I think this does apply to your usual topic. You don't see frugal, healthy foods on any of these shows. it's either extravagant or smothered in cream and butter.

You know what, though? I don't watch FN to get a new recipe. I watch to be entertained. Not that I watch often (no tv, no cable - LOL).

Ashley said...

I remember when my cable provider first picked up FN when I was a freshman in college. While watching Rachel Ray chop an onion with “the big knife,” I had my first light bulb moment of, “Wow…there’s a lot more to cooking than I thought. “ I can’t directly credit FN for my decision to eventually become a Registered Dietitian, but I can tell you that I didn’t learn a thoughtful , curious approach to food and cooking at home. My mom was a Southern heat-and-serve, paring knife-wielding child of the convenient 60s. I never saw a fresh herb on the family table. But times have changed- from watching Rachel and Giada (and yes, even Sandra Lee) my mother has picked up new ingredients and ideas…and cooks at home more than ever. For that, I will always appreciate FN.

Unfortunately, now that I have a career in food and nutrition I feel like I’ve outgrown (skill-wise and entertainment-wise) most of the FN primetime programming. Favorites will always be Alton Brown (especially the “Feasting On…” series), Michael Chiarello, Batali, Iron Chef Japan, Ina, and Anne Burrell. I think shows like “Diners…” and “Throwdown” do a lot for highlighting local food artistry. I don’t care much for “The Next Food Network Star,” but my mom loves it!

If I ran FN, I would devote more programming to cooking from basic ingredients, using locally-sourced foods, and how to grow your own food. I work primarily with families on food stamps, and let me tell you- they know who Paula Deen is. I wish more of the programming were aimed at an ethnically and financially diverse demographic (but in a much less obvious way than they are doing now- I find the name of Sunny Anderson’s show “Cooking for Real” seriously trite.) One thing I would change- I would not allow FN chefs to endorse products or food industries, or brand their own cooking utensils and equipment. Cookbooks are fine, but the merchandising accompanying FN turns me off.

Thanks for a great post!

Anonymous said...

wish they'd bring back the cooking shows in the evenings & weekends
I'd love re-runs of Rosengarten's "Taste" or Urvater's "$99 a week". In the meantime, we'll watch PBS or FLN.

Anonymous said...

I agree about the Next Food TV Star - that show is horrible - Top Chef and Iron Chef prove that you can do a cooking reality/ competition show and have it still be about the food. If they had more reality shows like this I might watch them, but who cares about decorating a cake that no one will eat and has to be dry and disgusting after sitting out for days while they cover it with loads of icing and decorations.

Christina said...

I agree that Food Network is making a mistake to air all the reality show junk. I think they are resorting to that because it gets ratings and is cheap to produce in large quantities. There are still some good cooking shows on, but never on prime time (except for AB, whom I love).

I know old school cooking shows don't get ratings and the business has to make money, but who is to say they have to air crap? There must be some interesting, innovative food programming that actually teaches people about food and cooking. I might even suggest that airing a bunch of shows about making gigantic cakes and the science of mass producing food is making the American obesity epidemic worse. Not knowing how to cook (ahem) reasonably priced, health-conscious, and tasty food is not good for anyone.

Marcia said...

Food Network taught me to cook, literally, in my early 30's.

My lineup would be Emeril, Alton Brown, Ina, Giada, a tiny bit of Ray-Ray, Sara Moulton, Dave Lieberman, Jamie Oliver (not naked chef, that food was nasty, I prefer Jamie at Home), Kathleen Daelmans, Ellie Krieger.

Without some of these people, I wouldn't have survived maternity leave, and my spouse ate like a king.

I do, however, like Guy Fieri (that was the only season of FN start I watched), and I am entertained by Throwdown on occasion.

I watch less FN now because I'm busy, but also because my meals focus heavily on heathly/vegetarian/and vegan foods. And there's not a lot of that on FN.

Kris said...

You guys, all these ideas and posts made me wonder why FN doesn't have A) a baking show or B) a vegetarian show. In either of those situations, there's a built-in audience. Bakers and veggies like to cook. They'll watch.

Andrea said...

I have to echo other folks' sentiments here - I remember the very first time I watched RR on FN in college. I was sitting in my college apartment (all spacious 550 square feet of it), and I thought, "Hey, this stuff is kind of cool!"

I'm an AVID (my husband is behind me saying "RABID!") Alton Brown fan, and even though he HATES Ina, he's more than once oohed and aahed over her recipes.

I'm sorry, but Sunny, the Neelys, Simply Delicioso, and a couple of other shows just plain SUCK. I recently made the Neelys' cashew crunch - it was a horrible, tasteless mess! And a damn waste of cashews!

I'm sick of reality TV in general, so this just really resounds with me.

(And FTR, I love Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives - think of the business those people get now!)

Leigh said...

I am so with you about there being a veggie show on FN or any dang where for that matter. I rarely watch cooking shows for the primary reason that watching Lidia or Ina or Alton caressing a hunk of meat gets nauseating after a couple of minutes. Don't get me wrong, I love them all. But I don't stick around after they're done with the veggie course.

I volunteer Veggie Might to be the first FN veggie cooking show, but I couldn't do it via reality competition. I'm too thin-skinned. ;)

BonzoGal said...

I agree with Michael Greenberg. If I see one more 'cake contest' (where it isn't even about the cake, it's about the frosting and giant sugar towers) then I will scream. I want to watch shows that help me cook better, not staged contests. (Watching a show about a regional cooking contest is fun once in a while, but these Las Vegas pastry/whatever contests are the same show over and over.)

You're right, I can turn off the channel. And I do. Food Network has lost me as a viewer.

chelledc said...

Maybe I'm the only one but I actually like Chopped. I cook enough that I can come up with my own recipes as soon as they open that basket and I like seeing what creative things the contestants come up with in such a short period of time. Some of those recipes are definitely worth copying.

I'm not even thirty but the FN is definitely not what got me interested. I was a big fan of PBS programming so thank you Justin Cook, Julia Childs, and Martin Yan. If FN gets to be too much reality for you PBS still has a few good ones and Julia Childs reruns (love her).

Anonymous said...

I watch less than half the amount of shows I used to watch on FN. The competition shows are stale for the most part and they are more about the personalities than the food. Witness NFNS.

One idea I'd like to see would be a show like Letterman but with a bent toward food. Couple of jokes. An interesting guest. The host and the guest then cook something with the idea that they are teaching the viewers how to do it.

When a niche channel like FN moves away from it's core business and starts programming for the broadest possible audience, it loses its identity. It begins to look like all the other cable channels.

In the case of FN, like any other channel, you have to decide what you like, watch that and leave the rest of the programming to others.

Switching the channel to something else is always the best protest.