Genre is one of the hottest sectors of the TV biz

Food is the new sports,” a media buyer told me the other day as I was trolling to get a sense of how this year’s upfront advertising sales market is shaping up for the big broadcast and cable nets.

TV’s top networks will see gains when the annual ritual of advance ad buying ensues, probably soon after the Memorial Day break because demand is so strong.

But biz observers say there’s no hotter sector to watch for long-term growth potential these days than food-related programming in all its forms. Foodie fare may not yet rival big-time sports in terms of total dollars, but when it comes to viewer engagement, marketing and sponsorship opportunities and brand extensions, ad mavens say it’s hard to beat the appeal of TV-cured celeb chefs.

Bravo’s “Top Chef” franchise and its spinoffs has been a big driver in creating foodie stars and interest among high-end sponsors. Fox can’t seem to get enough Gordon Ramsay, particularly in the summertime with “Hell’s Kitchen” and “MasterChef.” And it’s no surprise that ABC’s “The Chew” (stocked with chefs made famous on other channels) survived the Alphabet’s daytime bake-off to secure a second-year renewal.

At the epicenter of this epicurean explosion is Scripps Network Interactive’s Food Network, which marks its 20th anni next year, and its 2-year-old Cooking Channel offspring.

Food Network is run like a movie studio of yore in the way programmers focus on breaking new talent and building them up through carefully targeted appearances on a range of shows before they topline their own shows. The cabler’s monthly magazine is a prime platform for preaching to the choir, while the most successful stars become licensing and merchandising dynamos that extend the Food Network brand well beyond TV and online screens.

Cooking Channel was created two years ago because one network simply couldn’t contain all the material Scripps was developing, and as competition shows became more popular on the mothership, Scripps execs wanted to make sure they still had room for cooking how-to shows.

According to Kantar Media, Food Network and Cooking Channel together brought in advertising revenue of $629 million last year, up from $567 million in 2010. That number is sure to grow this year as Scripps rides the foodie frenzy it helped instigate.

“In the last five to six years, we’ve seen the conversation about food become so much more vibrant,” said Susie Fogelson, senior veep of marketing and brand strategy for Food Network and Cooking Channel. “It’s not programming for busy moms trying to get dinner on the table. Food is such a personal thing for people, and (advertisers) see that being close to consumers in a category that’s so important to them is a good way to market.”

To keep the Food Network’s top talent front and center, even the channel’s biggest names are still summoned for guest shots on channel staples like “Chopped” and “Iron Chef America.” The most meta example of this recycling is the competition series “Search for the Next Food Network Star,” where Scripps execs are prominently featured. And just like on “Top Chef,” it’s often not only the winner but also some of the colorful contenders that go on to fruitful careers in the food TV ecosystem.

Anne Burrell is an example of a fast-rising Food Network star who is getting the 360-degree treatment from the cabler. With her trademark spiky blonde hair, she first gained attention a few years ago as the sous chef of choice for Mario Batali in his appearances on “Iron Chef America.” Food Network brought her out from behind the stove to host her own show, “Secrets of a Restaurant Chef,” and co-host the “Worst Cooks in America” competish with uber-star Bobby Flay.

Last fall, Burrell’s Food Network-branded “Cook Like a Rock Star” book became a bestseller thanks to tubthumping on the network and online. Food Network prides itself on using all parts of the chicken, so to speak.

“We like to create stars, and a star in this day and age is a multifaceted brand,” Fogelson says.

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