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A Food Network observation (a bit long, but...)

From the comments here and elsewhere and the decline in ad revenue/ratiings that the Food Network has experienced, I've been really pondering and have come to a conclusion as to where they screwed up. Now say whatever you want about the whole celeb chef concept, but I have some ideas as to where I feel they lost their REAL base -the masses, not so much the foodies- along the journey.

I feel it began with Emeril himself. Here's a guy for whom I never fully jumped on the "hate 'im" bandwagon, but I know a lot of people couldn't stand the guy whatsoever. Well, I just recently had a friend comment on Emeril's appearance on "No Reservations" and she said, "Y'know, it actually made me wanna like the guy". And that comment made me realize that the guy everyone hated wasn't Emeril Legasse, it was "Emeril Live!" Legasse. The real life Emeril is a good chef, super savvy business man and from all accounts a really solid decent guy. Remember that when FN started, it was pretty much All-Emeril all the time. So that "BAM!" persona, I feel, probably evolved out of having to punch up endless hours of what was an evolving type of entertainment (and yes, first and foremost, it's ENTERTAINMENT).

The problem was, whenever they got a host who clicked a bit, Ray, Deen, Flay, Giada, they took the extremes of their "schtick" and made them, well... schtick. The guys who resisted, Mario, Bourdain, etc... well we know the history. The magic exception is the Teflon host, Alton Brown, who somehow came in ALREADY schtick and has somehow tempered down his persona to something probably much, much closer to the Alton his friends see. The rest of the pack, Florence, Lee, the morning folks (except Ina Garten who - in her own version of Altonism - seems to exist in some parallel FN universe) who are just so flaccid that they barely register.

The viewing public, despite the thoughts of many network executives, doesn't really want to watch "schtick", at least not for a protracted periond of time. Sure Jerry Springer can get away with it but until there's that marvelous tension of waiting to see Paula Deen knocking Giada's big head repeatedly into a flattop or a REAL Bobby Flay Throwdown, personality schtick gets tiresome real, real fast. It's a testament to Emeril himself that it took as long as it did in his case. And even he seemed to try temper it down a bit for a while, seemily knowing this.

The other area that FN missed the boat on is their insistence on dumbing down the food more and more just when they should be ramping it up. Here they go, teaching your average person words like "reduction", "confit", "gastrique", and "molecular gastronomy" -mostly via "Iron Chef America", notable for its PROFESSIONAL chefs - only to then concentrate on Guy Fierei's "money" twist on a plate of Nachos. Sure, some of the tips on say, Sandra Lee's show, regardless of their genuine quality or lack thereof, may be appreciated by busy working moms with little time on their hands, but you've helped create a popular interest in food, and restaurants, and chefs, and ingredients, and techniques and you don't take advatage of that?? And you wonder why people flock to "Top Chef" where the people actually can and DO cook rather than the dull amateur-night-at-the-burner debacle that has been your two "Next Food Network Star" runs?

The Foodie explosion? You helped create it, FN, then you turned your back on it. Dumb move in my opinion. Or maybe its just that you never actually got it in the first place.

So Chowhounds, those of you still with me (honest, I didn't mean for it to get this long) -am I hitting the target at all in you opinion? Have I missed any key, salient points?

Have at me!

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  1. I cannot add anything to your posting. I too have been saddened by the rapid decline of FN. I find myself switching channels, and hoping that maybe they have come to senses.But only to find another high volume/low browed/out of the can/slap it on the grill/crack a can of/lb of butter cooking show. Sad.

    1. I think one key point you've missed is the turn to competitive formats, using the sports metaphor to appeal to the coveted 18-35 male demographic. A good deal of what they now show in the evening is explicitly or implicity competitive (Throwdown, Iron Chef, Food Network Challenge, etc.).

      Another problem is one of the limitations of television, which is the need to make everything visual. Hence the preoccupation with cake-decorating, food sculpture, and other visual exercises that have little or nothing to do with food.

      And finally, there's the "reality" format, which is relatively cheap to produce and allows them to focus on personalities. I rather enjoy Ace of Cakes, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with food.

      Watching "Next Food Network Star" gave me a lot of insight into what Food Network is trying to do. One of their dilemmas is that, even though they say they want to find new talent and new formats, they are afraid of anything that doesn't fit into a very specific formula: they want a "big" personality, an identifiable and easily captured "culinary point of view" (schtick), and a willingness to sell one's soul to the Food Network, which, among other things, means never ever saying anything remotely negative about any of their stars. One of the painful things about watching the show was how "excited" all the contestants were to meet all their "favorite Food Network stars" -- Oh my goodness, it's Sandra Lee! It's Rachel Ray! I'm so thrilled I may faint! One of their central myths seems to be that everybody at the network loves and deeply respects everyone else, which I think is one of the main reasons they don't appreciate Batali or Bourdain, who are not willing to sacrifice either ego or standards. (I can't stand Bourdain, btw, but at least he isn't fake nice.)

      1. Yes, I get the impression the FN has fellen into the hands of Madison Avenue types who have little know.ledge of food and even less interest in it. They are probably only dimly aware that the classic TV cooking show was "The French Chef," not "The Powdered Gravy Lady."

        2 Replies
        1. re: mpalmer6c

          Yes indeed. Very on point, mpalmer6c.

          jlafler - you make a good point as well on the competitions, visual aspect. However, for the general public, that DOES give them a bit of what they want. People enjoy seeing challenges (hence "Iron Chef"'s success). But again, too much of a good thing...

          Remember that my post is primarily about the overall slippage in FN's popularity rather than any actual aspect of quality.

          As for your assessment of "NFNS" as a solid meter of their attitude towards programming, absolutely dead on! Packaged personalities are what they are seeking. If you always did cutaways from the faces to the hands cooking, you could easily substitute so many of the FN non-pro cooking folk with any of the personalities from Scripps' other channel, HGTV...

          1. re: Scortch

            Ah, yes, I did miss the point about overall slippage.

            I think what it boils down to is that any time you rely on a formula you run the risk of driving yourself out of business, because when people tire of the formula you have nothing else to offer. I think this is particularly a problem with FN's sports model, because after you've watched a few of the shows it becomes pretty clear that a lot of the drama is manufactured. The competition, such as it is, is either largely predetermined or depends on subjective judgements that the viewer can't rely on (e.g. judges whose comments are heavily edited or selected).

        2. On target as far as I see it. I too like Emeril but hated Emeril Live. Over exposure and the making a caricature of the host wears thin. I too tire of the competitive nature most of the shows have taken. It's always a contest or challenge. Jumping on the reality TV craze. I guess I'm not a reality TV kind of guy. I have never seen an episode of American Idol. I like ICA not so much due to the challenge but to see how the chefs have to think quickly on their feet. But alas I am no longer part of the demographic, 18-35 year old male audience that they are targeting.

          1. Thanks Scortch for adding some intelligence to this whole discussion thats been going on for a while.

            Some points.

            The whole obessiveness with the magic formula, that is the nature of our national psyche. We are always looking for the easy way out. Everything is a fad, everything is a trend, we have a bandwagon mentality. If a little Emeril is great, all Emeril all the time is better. I lived in a city where the mayor, whomever h/she may be, are always touting the next great civic development is the magic elixir to revive the downtown, all funded by tax payers. They are still looking. The run and shoot was the big deal in football at one time, do you see it now? The Bulls triangle offense was the rage, people forget that the Bulls had Michael Jordan to bail them out. Our modern history is strewn with the next greatest thing since sliced bread. People are just too lazy to think originally, and when they do, they are knocked down for being too eccentric.

            The thing that FN missed out on the competition shows is that the Iron Chef started a lot of it, and the Iron Chef was all schtick and none of it really and truly serious. The grading is haphazardous at best and there was always a wink and a nod between the show and the audience. The FN folks drank their own kool aid and bought their own hype. next thing you know, they think their excrement don't stink. Pathetic.

            The dumbing down of the programming is the ultimate insult. If your entire raison d'etre is to educate the great unwashed masses, why in God's name would you turn to these newly sophisticated eaters and tell them ala Emily Latella: "Never mind!"? That was the point where the food lovers lost their grip on the helm of FN and the mindless dime store MBA's took over.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Phaedrus

              Phaedrus, I think your citation of MBA's is spot on. The MBA/business mentality of standardization, cut costs (and programming is a cost), and "grow or die" has infected just about everything.

              Look at what happened to Starbucks--started as an interesting place with true baristas and a narrow focus on what it's purpose in life was. Then the MBAs said "how do we grow? Add locations. How do we provide a standardized 'experience' and cut costs in the bargain--coffee machines, not baristas. How do we increase revenue? Appeal to a larger group--lowest common denominator" Now they're in trouble--they've commoditized the experience to the point where the mass audience they've created has fled to McDonalds (low end) or local coffee shops (high end).

              And it isn't just food--I work in automotive market analysis and you can see the same thing happened with the domestic automakers, and it's happening all over again with Toyota. Cut costs, grow or die, gotta increase market share, but their quality is suffering and their cars are boring. You see it in retail--first Sears, then Kmart, now Wal Mart, tried to be things that they weren't (and eliminated what made them successful in the first place) in order to grow, and ended up losing their way. You see it with every chain restaurant that started as a local place that got popular, decided to expand, then became boring in an attempt to satisfy everyone.

              FN's high end/early adopters have fled to PBS or Fine Living, or here, or said to hell with it. The low end didn't care that much to begin with. If your customers don't have passion for your product, it becomes just another commodity, just like a McLatte.

            2. All very good points.

              I think for me one of the statements that sums up FN and their attitude best is a statement(which was posted on CH a while back) made by a FN exec regarding Top Chef vs NFNS. They said that (paraphrasing) NFNS was a superior show because unlike TC it focused and was all about the food. My jaw dropped when I read that. Any one who saw the show knew that all they wanted was personality and camera presence. It was if they aren't even watching their own shows.

              And as some one pointed out the MBA's got involved which means they can't sign any high priced experienced talent. Because there is not way a talented name chef is going to sign away all the marketing rights which FN is now after. The result they have to create their own 'talent'.

              Schtick is certainly and issue. they find some thing and reuse it over and over. How many shows does RR need.

              I think that any points they may have earned as to creating a foodie explosion. have long since vanished. When you have large chains such as Mcdonald's and TGIF sponsoring shows, or the 'talent' doing commercials for Dunkin Doughnuts and Applebees a revolution is not in the making.

              1. i have always felt that ALL the cooking shows/people had something to offer
                EVEN IF I don't like a couple of then as much as others . i know they have something for someone. that said
                all these new reality(ish) shows ,cooking contests etc. to me have nothing to offer and just fill blank tv air time

                1. I guess I am out of the loop. I was unaware that the Food Network had lost ratings. I still like it and watch quite a bit of it. That said, here is why I think that they have lower ratings:

                  First, I think that most people watch FN to learn about cooking and be entertained. The former is more important than the latter because, let's face it, in entertainment value alone, an FN show is never going to be as entertaining as"Lost" or "Grey's Anatomy." The FN execs have overemphasized the entertainment shows (all the competititve shows) over the cooking shows. If it is a choice between a cake decorating contest and "Lost," I am turning the channel to "Lost." On the other hand, if I am going to learn how to make a delicious dish, I can go almost nowhere else on television to learn that information.

                  Also, as "The Next Food Network Star" showed, the execs of the show want things SIMPLE. Most cooks who watch the network want a challenge, I think. Therefore, "Molto Mario" is a better model for future shows than Sandra Lee's show. Of course, there certainly is a market for SIMPLE, but I don't think it is a big as for more complex cooking.

                  1. These are some of my observations on this thread.

                    “That was the point where the food lovers lost their grip on the helm of FN and the mindless dime store MBA's took over.”

                    Understand FN is a business. And understand, at all times, “the MBA’s” will take over if the company wants to be successful (in media terms) and make money. That is the primary purpose of business.

                    But what is success? To the MBA’s it’s of course money. To the producers, it’s of course money. To the stars, it’s of course money. To you (and me), it may not be. That’s a huge difference and important to realize. Why would company alienate their base to achieve success? All you have to do is look at the political landscape for your answer. The fact of the matter is, FN is doing the right thing to make money. It’s also a fact that they may be forsaking their long-term future for short-term results. Happens all the time.

                    The AB v. FN fan feud.

                    Of course there’s not really much of a feud here. AB fans are very vocal regarding their distain for what FN has become. FN fans, don’t even know who AB is. Except for those insomniacs who actually think A Cook’s Tour is live.

                    Me? I’m a fan of both actually. Yeah. I like AB and I like FN. I watch them both all the time. To be honest, I like any program that gives me information on cooking, travel, and foods I have not tried. I just turn the channel when the personality is so over the top I can’t stand it. It’s happened both with AB and FN. Big deal. They are both looking for ratings and I’m not into that. Give me some solid information and I’ll watch, just like most people.

                    10 Replies
                    1. re: SDMike

                      Points well taken. The point I was trying to make is that the MBA's are very often too short term oriented and does not focus on the long term survival, which mirrors the American business landscape. The MBA's are usually short term shock troops who are brought in and their work judged on their short term impact, but by focusing on the short term, they are also killing the goose that laid the golden egg. That, is what everyone is up in arms about. It isn't about them making money, we are all pragmatic enough to understand that they are in business to make money, but that they are killing off the core audience which brought them to where they are. It is fine to broaden the audience demographics, but by alienating those who stuck by them loyally through the years, they won't have a base audience to build upon if they fail with their new audience, the roamers, and roamers are pretty darned fickle.

                      A series of short term local optimizations will never amount to the impact and profit of a long term global optimization. The MBA's counterpoint to that is that the landscape changes so often that the global solution may rarely be reachable. But then again, depleting your reserves in the interest of short term fixes is pretty stupid too.

                      1. re: Phaedrus

                        And I agree with you, PH. You’re still not separating the mindset though. They don’t care if they’ve sold out. In fact, they have no idea what you want. They want money. When FN goes down, do you really think they will care? Not a chance. They will have made their money and move on. So will the stars, produces, and ad guys. It’s about milking the cow to the last bitter end.

                        So let’s say I agree with you completely. Yet what have we got? You heard the people. Many of them love some of the people on FN. New people are getting involved. Old people are staying to see what they have. The ad guys got it made. It will collapse someday, but not for along time.

                        1. re: SDMike

                          So should we put the MBA in front of the lawyers in the execution line when the revolution comes?

                          1. re: Phaedrus

                            LOL, no you should just accept the fact that FN has some decent programs and that die hard foodies are not going to like it. Yet other die hard might find some value in them. It's not a black/white deal. FN does have some good shows, and it's not either or. What I hate, you might like.

                            But, I gotta say (yet it opens me to hate mail) Nigella is completely sexy. I don't care what she's cooking, I like to look at her. (See, the Ad men at work)

                            1. re: SDMike

                              I just flip over to No Reservations in the Travel Channel when its on, and watch Good Eats and Eating on Asphalt when it is on. And I agree about Nigella.

                              I know, it is what it is, but I don't have to like it.

                        2. re: SDMike

                          Yes, but part of the point of the original post is that FN ad revenue and ratings are declining, suggesting that their model isn't working financially. I'm not sure what the OP's source for this info was, but anyway, that's the point of departure for the conversation. And yes, I lost that point in my first response.

                          1. re: jlafler

                            That point is mute. Declining revenues stop no one. Again, think money. No one cares about a sinking ship if there's gold at the bottom. Everyone wins but the consumer.

                              1. re: jlafler

                                LOL jlafler. The English Major in me thanks you for that. I am still laughing about Phaedrus' Emily Latella reference above. It took me a minute but then I got it. Haven't thought about that in so long. I think these are all very strong arguments. i hope someone at the FN is reading this.

                        3. This turned into an interesting read and I agree with many of the pov raised. I will add this: reruns are killing FN. Food is best enjoyed FRESH, yes :)
                          Nearly all of the programming is rotated to the point of boring. If you're a regular viewer how many x's can you enjoy the same recipe/menu repeated knowing the FN website can provide the "print out." If you already know the outcome of Throwdown, Iron Chef A...how interesting does it play in reruns?

                          If FN wants to keep its audience on board-start taping/filming new episodes!

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: HillJ

                            Clearly they don't think in terms of food or cooking.- Leftovers are good once and a while. But food is always best when it is cooked fresh.

                            1. re: Withnail42

                              yes true but there seems to be a lot less cooking than b-4

                            2. re: HillJ

                              In order to do that kind of thing, they'd need to have people who had time to film more episodes. That, of course, would mean people who don't have restaurants or other food based endeavours going and, thus, have no "credentials" to be on TV talking about food or cooking anyhow (according to many of the criticisms of Food Network on these boards). So, a conundrum. Even _less_ qualified and credentialed people filming more shows....

                              1. re: ccbweb

                                Very very weak point. There are plenty of 'qualified' people out there. Many people would be more than happy make the time for a TV show of their own.

                                How Many shows does RR have plus a daily hour long network gig? and yet she still finds the time for yet ANOTHER show on FN.

                                What FN does is use the same four or five people over and over. Then repeat the shows daily and then run daily 'marathons' with them.

                                1. re: ccbweb

                                  ccbweb, grads of The New School intern and land spots on FN regularly; among them film crew, FN research, etc. There is no excuse for a large operation like FN supported by Scripps to be anything less than cutting edge, relevant and highly capable of recruiting behind the scenes talent. The only conundrum I see is a network out of touch w/its bored audience.

                              2. The executives in charge of Food Network are incompetent. I am surprised they haven't all been fired and replaced already. The network is getting worse and worse as time goes on. The shows grow more insipid and the ratings drop. How do these execs hold onto their jobs? My point of view might be cynical, but the Food Network execs hold onto their jobs because, in today's America, top execs rarely get punished for bad performance.

                                In trying to make the Food Network so "entertaining", they got, as a result, a network that is NEITHER about food NOR particularly entertaining.

                                You could see which way they were going a long time ago when they canceled Molto Mario. It was obvious back then.

                                And yes, their stable of "stars" have all been reduced to a cartoonish caricature of themselves.

                                The execs should be fired and replaced and/or the Food Network deserves to die the slow death that it is currently experiencing. Maybe someone will wake up and smell the coffee and make the Food Network about food again.