TV gets bigger appetite for successful food format

Basic cable has come up with a recipe for success: the food format.

A wave of food shows, and even a new cooking channel, will mark the next iteration of a trend that started with the Food Network, followed by the emergence of celebrity chefs, and then a whole class of culinary-themed reality shows.

During the past several months, a handful of cable networks have increased their daily dietary requirements. Where Food Network found a niche 17 years ago in enticing millions of wannabe chefs to ogle over what Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali had on the stove, others are realizing that a sprinkling of everything culinary — from how to make the perfect mac-and-cheese to a competition determining who can consume 20 hot dogs in less than two minutes — can be an instant recipe for success.

“It fits our core audience and is entirely relatable to all of us,” says TLC president Eileen O’Neill, whose network rode the “Jon and Kate Plus 8″ phenomenon for several years before shifting to a slew of food-centric series. “We kind of jokingly said there’s always room for a food show. We don’t want it to overtake our lineup, but at the end of the day, there was a great opportunity for it.”

No show may be as successful for TLC as “Cake Boss,” which averaged 1.8 million viewers during the just concluded second season and has been renewed for a third. The skein, which centers on Buddy Valastro and his family bakery in Hoboken, N.J., is only one of three dessert-themed programs on the net that is resonating with foodies. There’s also “Ultimate Cake Off” and “Little Chocolatiers”; and for more grill-centric viewers, “BBQ Pitmasters” fits the bill.

Even IFC — once known as Independent Film Channel — has supplemented film with food. “Dinner With the Band” and “Food Party” make up a Tuesday night hourlong block that will begin in April.

“Everybody eats, and many people like to cook,” says exec VP-g.m. Jennifer Caserta. “When you approach that with an IFC twist — an irreverent and indie point of view — you can have an alternative to a tried-and-true genre.”

At Scripps — home of Food Network — Fine Living has been rebranded to become the Cooking Channel. The new entity will launch at the end of May, and executives are close to announcing a programming lineup when they gather the ad community for the upcoming cable upfronts.

General manager Michael Smith says that the evolution for a second cuisine-oriented network was natural for Scripps, considering that Food has seen a significant spike in viewership since 2008.

“It was clear the audience wanted more of this stuff. It got to a critical mass that there’s enough demand for this kind of programming and it was time for a second screen,” says Smith, who added that there will be no shortage of programs to fill the lineups of both networks.

And what will differentiate between the two?

“Cooking Channel will be for the person who’s hyperpassionate about the subject. They might come over from Food Network or somewhere else and want to learn more and dive deeper. In this economy, people are cooking more, going out less and are more into health,” Smith says.

Cooking shows have long been a staple of television. U.K. native Graham Kerr hosted “The Galloping Gourmet” in the late 1960s and early ’70s and, of course, Julia Child indoctrinated American audiences to the art of European cooking with “The French Chef” in 1963.

Contemporary chefs see mostly an upside to the food shows that have proliferated around the dial, like the Travel Channel’s “Man vs. Food” and “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.”.

“It’s indicative of what people want and fantastic for our profession,” says David Myers, chef/owner of Los Angeles restaurants Sona, Comme Ca and Pizzeria Ortica. “It gives people more awareness of what it’s like in our business.”

Adds Karen Hatfield who, along with her husband, is chef/owner of Hatfields: “I enjoy any show that brings authenticity. I’m a total sucker for ‘Top Chef.’ I can relate to the chefs on the show and their aspirations. There’s real talent there.”

Hatfield, clearly, isn’t the only one who shares that opinion about “Top Chef.” Bravo is about to embark a seventh season of the Magical Elves-produced skein, as viewers keep returning for each cycle. The Dec. 9, 2009 sixth-season from Las Vegas, in which Michael Voltaggio took home the crown, drew 3.7 million viewers — a very healthy number for the cabler.

Broadcast has embraced the food genre as well. Fox has renewed U.K. import “Hell’s Kitchen” through its eighth season and the Gordon Ramsey starrer has been the No. 1 summer program among young adults for three years in a row. “Kitchen Nightmares,” in which Ramsey tries to help turn around underperforming restaurants, has done a solid job on Fridays and surged to a record 9 million viewers when placed behind “American Idol” in a recent special Tuesday airing.

And that’s not all for the net. Fox has high expectations for Oz and U.K. reality hit “Masterchef,” where nonpros compete before a panel of judges, including Ramsey. The show has no premiere date but could launch in summer.

Not including weight loss programs, no other broadcasters have embraced the culinary genre, but if Fox’s hot streak continues, it shouldn’t be too long before its competitors change course and pick up a fry pan.

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