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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.