Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Food Network, the Decline of Stand and Stir Programming, and Where to Go From Here

Earlier this week, True/Slant’s Michael Greenberg wrote a scathing open letter to Bob Tuschman, the SVP of Programming at Food Network. In it, he rails against their lineup as of late. A few key quotes:

The Next Food Network Star sucks. It’s not entertaining. It has nothing to do with actual culinary skill. And it’s another troubling step in the ultimate devaluation of your network’s brand.”

“Nowadays, prime time on the Food Network is all about competition shows and reality non-fiction programming — and it’s all about folks looking to make a name and buck. The food is just an afterthought for you, Bob, and it’s really starting to grate on me.”

“It looks like my beloved Food Network has succumbed to the reality-show dreck that pollutes other once-innovative TV networks, like MTV and VH1.”

As a food freak, I agree with some of Michael’s points. I want gentle, informative instruction in my cooking shows, not all this reality stuff. Why so many cake wars when you can show Ina, Giada, and (oh lord, please bring her back) Sara?

Because (with the notable exception of Ace of Cakes), verité programming becomes pretty dull after awhile. Look, it's nice that you can make fondant that looks like Shrek. But can someone tell us how to create fondant in the first place? I’ve watched approximately 50,000 Food Network shows, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen step-by-step instructions.


As someone working in cable television, I think Michael’s out of his mind.

When it comes to TV, righteous indignation tends to garner support. Especially on the internet, it rallies idealists to your side. But often, it ignores real-life situations like technology, demographic shifts, industry changes, and financial needs. Michael may lament Food Network turning into VH1, but you know what? VH1’s ratings have never been higher than the last few years, when reality programming has taken over the schedule. However you feel about Bret Michaels or Guy Fieri, they run rings around Charlie Rose and C-Span.

At its heart, television is a business. An occasionally ruthless, often pandering business that’s chief purpose is to make money for advertisers. It does that through ratings, and subsequently, will broadcast almost whatever it takes to garner those eyes. In some cases, that’s Food Network Challenge. In others, it’s the truly charming Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. It still others, it’s Unwrapped (which - I feel like I’ve seen the same dang conveyor belt 200 times now).

However you feel about these shows, they rate. Someone is watching this stuff. Usually, it's me. Or you. Or your mom. If you don't like it, change the channel. It's not like there aren't a million other options.

If you want elegance, pick up a Julia Child cookbook. Read Saveur or Bon Appétit. Change the channel to PBS, where I’m pretty sure you’ll never see Lidia Bastianich competing on Chopped (which I actually think is a fun show). As with music or movies, it's up to each individual to take advantage of non-traditional outlets, if they so choose.

But if you want cooking shows designed to appeal to the widest possible swath of Americans, go to Food Network. Because odds are, you’re one of those people, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Odds are, Alton Brown, Emeril, or even Ray-Ray got you interested in cooking in the first place. Odds are, you’ve watched one of those reality shows and thought, “Wow. I didn’t know you could do that with celery root.”

Ultimately, this it isn’t to say we shouldn’t reach for the stars, or try to get the best possible programming on television for all to see. The quality of our mass media says a lot about the intellectual interests of our country. What it IS to say is that we have to accept that certain outlets are businesses. They exist to make money, not to achieve indie cred.

So readers, I turn this one over to you. If you ran Food Network what kind of shows would you create? What would they look like? Who would host them? What kind of cuisine would you make? What issues would you tackle?

P.S. Quite a few Serious Eaters compared Food Network's current slate to MTV's lifestyle programming, which I thought was interesting. MTV stopped playing videos because they’re pretty much the lowest-rated things you can put on TV without resorting to infomercials. Kids aren’t the same as they were in 1987 – they’re not going to watch a Ne-Yo video and then stick around for the Jonas Brothers. Also, get off my lawn!

P.P.S. This didn't relate to inexpensive, healthy food in the least. We'll get back to that tomorrow, I promise.

(Photos courtesy of The Morning News and Operation Bon Appetit.)

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