Networks Cook Up Genre Growth With Unscripted Food Shows

Unscripted Cooking Shows Growth Reality TV
John Holcroft for Variety

At the risk of going stale, networks are constantly attempting to rewrite the recipes for cooking competition series, with twists ranging from culinary sabotages to hipster kitchen battles. And because of that, food is one of the few growth areas in unscripted competition programming.

Since the Food Network launched “Iron Chef America” 10 years ago, food series have consistently moved away from traditional domestic “how-to” shows toward competitions, according to a 2013 study from Tasha Oren, U. of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, associate professor.

Bob Tuschman, Food Network g.m. and senior VP of programming, says the rise in food shows — and competition shows in particular — comes from a general rise in food awareness.

“Everybody fancies themselves a food critic and a food aficionado,” he says. “And that’s obviously a great place for us to be in.”

The Food Network has capitalized on the culinary craze by pitting chefs against one another in show after show.

One such play on the genre is Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen,” hosted by Alton Brown. The mixture of standard cooking competition and gameshow allows the contestants to buy items at “auctions” during filming that will sabotage their opponents — things like a soggy bun that the chef must incorporate into a dish, or a lobster claw mitt that a chef must wear at all times.

“At least half of the shows in the genre are stupid,” Brown says. “That’s not Food Network’s opinion, but it is mine and I stand behind it. I won’t make stupid shows. And I won’t be involved or invest myself in them. Life’s too short. And so ‘Cutthroat Kitchen’ may not be the perfect TV show by any stretch of the imagination, but it is original, it is innovative and it is smart.”

Catering to an intelligent audience was precisely PBS’ aim when it acquired the BBC hit “The Great British Bake-off,” which began airing in the U.S. as “The Great British Baking Show” in 2014.

Beth Hoppe, chief programming executive at PBS, says they jumped at the chance to bring the show over as soon as the rights freed up from CBS, which had acquired it in 2012 for its U.S. version, “The American Baking Competition,” which tanked in the ratings and only lasted one season.

She says that for PBS, “it fit on a lot of different levels — not just in the kind of how-to cooking, but in the positive outcome, the real people, the diversity.”

Fox’s “MasterChef Junior” is a consistent ratings-getter, and the appeal of the show is similar to the “British Bake-Off”: young amateurs wowing grizzled vets (Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot — all fathers as well) with nary a bitchy comment among them, just talented, fresh-faced kids. That approach recently earned “MCJ” a Critics Choice nomination. But perhaps seeing Ramsay’s soft side also has its appeal.

Serving a completely different demographic, the Esquire program, “Knife Fight,” which premiered in 2013, uses a food competition to entice affluent male viewers. The rules of the show aren’t revolutionary, but the way it is filmed as a sort of culinary “Fight Club,” and the lack of stakes apart from bragging rights and a knife that says “I won” (the loser’s says, “I almost won”) make the show feel closer to something that might happen organically in a restaurant.

The show’s attempt at authenticity makes it click for the network’s audience, which tends to be skeptical toward reality shows, according to Matt Hanna, Esquire’s head of original programming.

“You’re trying to access a target audience who are hard to reach and hard to win over, who really have been turned off by most reality television and don’t trust that it’s real. So that passion and letting it be as real as it can possibly be, are key attributes for us.”

Tuschman is hopeful that new ideas for cooking competitions remain untapped. “As long as we keep finding fresh, new ways to re-create the genre, I think it has infinite possibilities,” he says.

But in an increasingly fragmented television landscape, the competition to find a way to satisfy audiences is as stiff as the showdowns in the kitchen.

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