At age 20, cabler's growth has paralleled its auds’ increasingly sophisticated palates
If the ingredients in Food Network’s success over the past 20 years were to be boiled down into recipe form, it would read something like this:
» 3 cups celebrity chefs
» 2 cups entertainment value
» 1½ cups genius branding
» 1½ cups fortuitous timing
» 1 cup community-building
» ¾ cup positivity
» 2 heaping tablespoons passion
» Dash of luck
The Scripps Networks Interactive cabler, which marks the 20th anniversary of its formal launch on Nov. 23, 1993, has whipped all those elements into a TV souffle — a 24/7 meal that is light and tasty for the viewer but a complex operation for its cooks.
The channel that was once given away to cable operators for free was perfectly timed to capitalize on the enormous growth of popular interest in food, cooking, chefs and restaurateurs. Food Network has blossomed during the past decade into a top 10 basic cable powerhouse, one that has seemingly endless opportunities for brand extensions, from the monthly magazine that is a joint venture with Hearst Corp. to its voluminous website to all manner of merchandise.
Food Network is now the profit engine of its parent company, a taste-maker in food trends (kale! quinoa! kohlrabi!) and a career-maker for foodie personalities of all flavors. Gourmands may turn up their nose at Food Network’s “gameshows,” but there is no disputing the impact the channel has had on the nation’s eating and dining habits.
“It’s a virtuous circle,” says 10-year Scripps vet Brooke Johnson, president of Food Network since 2004, as well as the Cooking Channel topper. “People are more interested in food and that makes them more interested in Food Network, which makes people more interested in all kinds of foods. And unlike a lot of cable networks out there, we really are experts in what we do. We really are on the bleeding edge working with the best chefs in the world.”
Food Network occupies a uniquely huge niche in the world of lifestyle cablers for the simple reason that everyone eats. That means the sky’s the limit for potential target audiences for its programs, which range from competition-reality shows to exotic travelogues to traditional how-to shows. At the core of every program is a celebration of culinary skills — a movement fostered just as the network was getting off the ground by food minds ranging from Alice Waters to Martha Stewart to Anthony Bourdain.
“Cooking used to be a means to an end,” says Susie Fogelson, senior VP of marketing and brand strategy for Food Network and Cooking Channel. “Now it’s a form of self-expression and creativity. Planning meals, preparing meals, shopping for meals has all become a great creative outlet for people. It’s no longer a chore.”
There’s also a level of accessibility with food-related programming, from non-pretentious personalities like Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee, who are not averse to using packaged ingredients for convenience’s sake, to “Iron Chef”-level talents like Cat Cora and Michael Symon.
“Being into food used to be more of a fancy big-city phenomenon,” Johnson says. “That’s where most of our chefs came from. Food Network helped expose the fun and excitement and the broad array of what food could be to the entire country. Now there’s not many towns you can go to where you can’t find a little Asian fusion. That’s been a tipping point for us.”
Bob Tuschman, Food’s g.m. and senior VP of programming, calls it a “democratization” movement that has been spurred in part by technology and the ease with which people can learn about new foods, restaurants and cooking techniques. “Part of our approach has been to open the door wide and let everybody know that they’re welcome here,” he says.
Fogelson notes that digital media has aided this effort in many ways, from easy access to information and recipes to making once-hard-to-find ingredients available by mail order.
“There’s been an explosion of accessibility, empowerment and confidence aided by the digital space. Discussions of food, sharing pictures of food is one of the largest drivers of what goes on in social media,” Fogelson says.
The question of Food Network’s role in driving the boom in foodie culture and celebrity is a classic chicken-or-egg quandary. From the early days led by its first homegrown star, Emeril Lagasse, to its current deep bench, no entity has been more responsible for turning chefs into rock stars than Food.
“It’s been a game-changer simultaneously across the food and media industries as well as American culture,” says WME’s Jon Rosen, who reps such superstar chefs as Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis, Bobby Flay and Tom Colicchio. “The network has been an incredible platform for food personalities to gain mass exposure beyond cookbooks and traditional means. It’s also paved the way for the numerous food-related programs on all networks.”
The cabler functions like a well-oiled machine when it comes to grooming new talent. One of the biggest assets in developing its stars is the number of opportunities it has to showcase them on any given day. Promising personalities can be featured as a contestant on one show, a judge on another, give a demonstration on a third, write a column for the magazine or website, and eventually move on to fronting their own specials and series.
“Because everything we do involves food, we have so many ways to help accelerate their stardom,” Tuschman says.
Food Network has come a long way from its earliest days, when the cabler carried a slate of studio-bound shows (the on-air name was trimmed from the redundant TV Food Network in 1997). It was dependent largely on Gotham-area talent because there was not much in the way of a budget to fly people in.
The channel was started by a clutch of TV station owners, including Tribune Broadcasting and Scripps Howard Co., cable operators and newspaper owners, led by Providence Journal Co. Control of the channel shifted a few times until Scripps acquired the majority 69% interest in 1997, with Tribune retaining 31%. (Scripps split its newspaper and TV businesses into separate companies in 2008.)
Flay, one of Food’s signature stars, was a presence on the channel from the beginning. He was “in the right place at the right time” as the chef at a hip Manhattan eatery, the Mesa Grill.
He remembers taking the subway to a “beat-up” studio on 11th Avenue to do guest shots on various shows until he fronted his first Food show, “Grillin’ and Chillin’ ” Then, as now, Flay saw the exposure on Food as a means of boosting his first priority, his restaurants.
“It came at a moment when we were seeing a brand new culture for food,” Flay says. “My (chef) colleagues would say to me, ‘Why are you doing TV? You’re a chef.’ I told them I knew that this was going to put people in the seats of my restaurant. It was really the first time that a chef could use the marketing power of TV other than doing a quick standup on ‘Regis’ or the ‘Today’ show.”
Twenty years later, Flay owns six high-end restaurants, and his celebrity has allowed him to realize another lifelong dream: owning a burger joint. “I just opened my 16th Bobby’s Burger Palace,” he notes. “Being able to do these restaurants outside of big cities is completely a product of the fact that I’ve been on Food Network for so long.”
That most of Food Network’s top stars are successful entrepreneurs in their own right goes a long way toward communicating a sense of authority to viewers.
“From a producer’s perspective, one of the things about doing a show for Food Network is you’re dealing with incredibly creative, accomplished people who are passionate about what they do,” says Steve Kroopnick, “Iron Chef America” exec producer.
The evolution of Food Network’s primetime lineup from instruction-based to more entertainment-oriented programming was a natural byproduct of the company’s growth and a widening audience base. It was also undoubtedly spurred by competition from such foodie rivals as Bravo’s “Top Chef” and Gordon Ramsay’s brand of agro entertainment on Fox, which exposed audiences to the more pressure-filled, rough-and-tumble aspects of the food profession. Food not only counter punched with “Chopped,” emcee’d by Ted Allen of Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” but also with edgier shows that appealed to younger demos like “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” hosted by spikey-haired rising star Guy Fieri, and “Bitchin’ Kitchen,” featuring the decidedly punky Nadia G.
The spin-off Cooking Channel was born in 2010 (a makeover of the luxury-focused Fine Living Channel) to take up the slack in Food’s how-to lineup and to revive some classic early offerings like “Molto Mario,” as in Batali.
“Most of our viewers after they’ve had their evening meal want to kick back with something more entertaining,” Tuschman says. “We listened to our viewers and found several genres of reality and variety shows that they really respond to.”
The network also has been quick to respond to criticism, such as Paula Deen’s high-fat, sugar-laden recipes, by rolling out the more health-conscious “Not My Mama’s Meals,” hosted by Deen’s son Bobby, the same year (in 2012) she admitted to having Type 2 diabetes.
Despite the occasional setback, the power of the underlying Food Network brand has remained resilient, and is a magnet onto itself — a rare feat for a network. But then again, the stomach is a proven path for winning hearts and minds.
“It never ceases to amaze me how many ways fans can interact with our brand,” Fogelson says. “They can watch a show, then get a recipe online, then see our brand when they’re shopping for goods to make dinner that night and finish the day watching ‘Cupcake Wars.’ In our competitive (cable) set viewers engage when they turn on the TV. Our brand gets lived.”