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Despite Coronavirus, Food Network Has Been Stuffing Its Viewers With New Programs

Food Network Restaurant Impossible Amy Schumer
Courtesy of Food Network/John Lee/food Network

In June, two perennial Food Network shows, Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and Robert Irvine’s “Restaurant: Impossible,” went back into production. It was the first time either show shot on location since the coronavirus pandemic brought all television and film production to a dramatic halt in mid-March. They were filmed under strict, new COVID-19 protocols with reduced, mask-wearing crews — all of whom, according to Food Network, tested negative for coronavirus after filming was completed.

Courtney White, the president of Food Network and Cooking Channel, says the network agreed to restart production after creating specific plans for each show. “It isn’t one-size-fits-all,” White tells Variety. “But we did start with: Where can we film with the smallest footprint, the smallest crew — where everybody is very comfortable, and everybody’s on board? Obviously in this scenario, everybody feels different about their own personal willingness to step out of their house.”

Food Network has proved to be highly adaptable during this challenging, impossible year for television. During the stay-at-home orders of the spring, the channel quickly pivoted to offering new, self-shot programming by its talent roster — among them, the chefs on “The Kitchen,” Giada De Laurentiis for “Giada at Home 2.0” and Ree Drummond for “The Pioneer Woman.” The network’s executives were listening to their viewers, White says, who were asking on social media, “What do I cook from my pantry? I used to have my go-tos, but my repertoire has run dry.”

The channel also introduced a new, self-shot show in the form of the buzzy “Amy Schumer Learns to Cook,” featuring Schumer and her husband Chris Fischer, a James Beard Award-winning chef. Variety chief TV critic Daniel D’Addario praised the show as an “elegantly, unfussily made document about learning to live, at least for a time, in a new world.” According to White, a quarter of the show’s audience were “new to Food Network.” The network has ordered more episodes to premiere in August — and on July 28, it received an Emmy nomination in the unstructured reality program category.

The cabler has been rewarded for its deftness with a ratings spike. Food Network has shot into the cable ranking’s Top 10, and in the second-quarter ratings for its target demographic of viewers 25-54, it had its best primetime since 2013, and best total day ratings since 2012.

For White, watching the viewership surge has been rewarding. “It has made our work feel important,” she says. “And it has been really gratifying that in such a challenging, turbulent time more viewers have come to us. It has been an incredible gift and a huge boost to all of us.”

The new episodes of Irvine’s show, which will be called “Restaurant Impossible: Back in Business” will premiere on July 30. The new “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” season will likely premiere early next year. Both shows will break the fourth wall to spell out for viewers how they were filmed safely. “Restaurant Impossible: Back in Business” will focus on helping to reopen establishments in Florida, Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri that Irvine has worked with before. The show’s usual crew is 35 people, plus paid volunteers of up to 100 more. For this season, the program used 12 crew members, a COVID compliance officer and Irvine himself, all of whom drove to the different locations in two 45-foot-long buses. (“Restaurant Impossible” shot six episodes in June, and recently began filming four more.)

“Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” filmed in Fargo, N.D., and Sioux Falls, S.D. — the only states Fieri had not yet visited on the show. He flew in privately, and the six-person Triple-D crew all drove separately throughout.

For both shows, the crew was masked and distant. The hosts stand apart from the restaurant owners and chefs as well. According to Food Network, the crews’ meals were regulated, they stayed in quarantine, their sanitation standards were rigorous and fans of the hosts were kept at bay.

These usually freewheeling shows — Fieri is boisterous; Irvine can be both warm and harsh — will be very different in tone in the upcoming seasons, White says, to reflect the atmosphere in which they were filmed. Restaurants, after all, have been hit especially hard during the pandemic, which has included sudden regulatory swings over their openings and closings. Both Irvine and Fieri, White says, had to adjust to not being able to touch the restaurateurs hosting them.

“There’s a moment in the first episode of ‘Restaurant Impossible’ that’s very emotional,” White says. “And Robert’s a hugger, and in normal times, he would have just embraced that woman in his traditional bearhug.” For Fieri, she adds, “he’s somebody who always has his arm draped over the chef’s shoulder — and for him to be at a distance, it’s going to be different.”

“We’ll see how they feel in the end,” White continues. “But it is definitely a snapshot of this moment in time.”

Food Network is also experimenting with shooting some of its upcoming holiday food programming outdoors rather than on sets, as has been done in the past. The shows “Halloween Baking Championship,” “Holiday Baking Championship,” “Kids Baking Championship” and “Spring Baking Championship” have recently begun filming at a resort in California — one after the other, over the course of the next few months. After the cast and crew test negative, they quarantine at the resort. As with “Restaurant: Impossible” and “Diners,” these shows will look different — reflecting the altered world in small ways.

Meanwhile, filming a popular studio show like “Chopped” is still in the planning stages, but White hopes to start production on it again in the fall. Luckily for both Food Network and the shows’ fans, “Chopped,” “Beat Bobby Flay” and “Guy’s Grocery Games” film “so far ahead and in such numbers,” White says, that all three shows have continued to air unabated. “Chopped” and “Beat Bobby Flay” are stocked with new episodes through the first half of 2021.

One show on hold for now — for reasons of taste — is the competition “Supermarket Stakeout,” hosted by Food Network star Alex Guarnaschelli. On the series, chefs approach grocery store shoppers after they’ve left a supermarket to buy ingredients from them for a dish Guarnaschelli has dictated. “It’s a show we would like more of,” White says. “But the notion of ambushing somebody as they’re coming out of the grocery store no longer feels as fun and carefree as it did when we were filming that last year.”

Docu-soaps are also not possible right now, but White and her team are developing some anyway, with the idea “that production will at some point come back in all its glory, and that we will be prepared,” she says. She teases a project that’s been following prominent restaurant owners through the dramatic oscillations of the coronavirus, and will continue to through the end of the year. “I think this is a moment in time that will impact the restaurant industry for years and years to come,” White says. “And it’s definitely a story that has to be told.”

Food Network’s challenge, White says, is to continue to meet the moment. That includes listening to issues raised by the Black Lives Matter protests, and continuing to expand the channel’s on-camera talent to include more “chefs of all color and region and expertise,” she says. White also wants the channel’s new viewers — Amy Schumer enthusiasts, for example — to become “lifelong Food Network fans.”

“We want to stay fresh and timely,” White says, “and keep reinventing ourselves for our core viewers who are watching more and more.”