Food Network spawns edgy, young Cooking Channel
There's more food TV than ever to chew on - shows featuring barbecue tips, chef smackdowns, easy Italian dishes, sailor-mouthed kitchen bosses, diner dispatches and cakes that look like race cars.
Want more? Or maybe the better question is, need more?
The Food Network is betting on it.
The Cooking Channel debuts next month and, like its well-established sister channel, it will offer 24-7 food programming. Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay and a few other Food Network stars will pull double duty on the new channel. But executives with Scripps Networks Interactive, which owns both channels, say the Cooking Channel will have a different flavor, one with more emphasis on international cuisines, drinks, food culture and advanced cooking techniques.
One executive likened the relationship between the two channels to a major movie studio and its indie-spirited niche film division.
"The tone and the style and the feel that we're going for is a little grittier, a little younger, a little more contemporary," said Bruce Seidel, the new channel's senior vice president for programming and production.
The TV landscape is dramatically different from when the Food Network launched in 1993. Back in that pre-Iron Chef era, food shows were typically "behind-the-stove" shows on public television.
The Food Network helped usher in a culinary era in which top chefs cut loose, compete and are idolized like pop stars.
Critics grumble that they have elevated personality over food. But by producing a series of household names - Emeril, Giada, Mario, Rachael - the Food Network has had a huge impact on food TV and the cookbook industry.
One big marker of that success is the boom in food shows. Bravo has scored with "Top Chef," and TLC has "Cake Boss." There's "Hell's Kitchen" on Fox and "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" on ABC.
It's almost easier to list stations that don't have food shows. Even the History Channel has "Food Tech" and Syfy is developing "Marcel's Quantum Kitchen."
The number of hours devoted to food shows has more than tripled in five years, said Cooking Channel general manager Michael Smith. But he added that Food Network ratings grew 40 percent in the last two years even as the food field became more crowded. Scripps executives believe there is more room for foodies to get their fix, a feeling shared by industry watchers given Americans' continuing fascination with food.
"We saw that this category is so hot that if we didn't launch another full-time food channel, somebody else probably would," Smith said.
The Cooking Channel will offer a stew of shows new, old and imported, starting May 31. Under a co-production deal, some shows on Food Network Canada will air later on the Cooking Channel. That includes "Food Jammers," which revolves around three Canadian guys and their goofy culinary inventions like 3-D pizza and a taco vending machine. The channel also is bringing over shows like "Indian Food Made Easy" from England.
The channel also will rerun shows of pre-cable pioneers Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet (a.k.a. Graham Kerr). Current Food Network stars doubling up on the Cooking Channel will offer some change-ups. Aida Mollenkamp of the Food Network's "Ask Aida," for instance, leaves the studio to milk goats and dip truffles in chocolate as she investigates artisan foods in "Foodcrafters."
Mollenkamp likens the Food Network, with its time-tested consistency, to a "comforting hug from a relative" and sees the Cooking Channel as a chance to stretch out.
"We're looking at it a little bit more like an opportunity to take a day off from that kind of work and open up a little bit," she said.
But it also looks like the Cooking Channel will stick to the formula that has made Food Network a culinary cultural force: the focus on personality-driven shows.
By relying on hosts that are sometimes manic, often good looking and always with personalities that pop from the screen, the Food Network has chipped away at the old image of the professional cook as some interchangeable guy in a chef's hat.
"They have become these exalted, demiglacé gods," joked Epicurious.com editor Tanya Steel, who said that when her children met Mario Batali, they acted like they met Bono.
The Food Network's DNA is easy to spot not only in dozens of TV food shows, but also the consumer-friendly culinary magazines and food websites offering easy meals and food-related contests. The cookbook section of chain bookstores is jammed with titles from Food Network talent.
"When you look at the shelves of those people, it feels like, 'These are my cooking buddies,"' said Suzanne Gluck, who handles chef book deals for William Morris Endeavor Entertainment as co-head of its worldwide literary department.
Gluck credits the Food Network with consistently finding stars with equal measure cooking talent and personality.
The triumph of the Food Network has been welcomed by industry types like Steel, who sees the channel inspiring another generation to cook and love food. It has inspired more mixed feelings from some of the old guard, who struggle to cope with a culinary world where Gourmet magazine is out of business and figure skater Brian Boitano was given his own food show.
"I'm a chef ... so it hurts me to see this dumbed down or disrespected," said Anthony Bourdain, known for his non-Food Network media ventures. "But I'm aware of the fact that however repellent I might find a lot of this programming, it is a spectacularly successful business model that probably benefited me in the long run."
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University who worked briefly for the Food Network at its start, said she wished the channel gave more time to "serious food news."
But in the same e-mail she greeted the launch of the Cooking Channel, writing "I'm for anything and anyone who gets people excited about food and cooking."
Bourdain echoed that point, conceding that any additional food programming is a good thing.
"What's worse," he asked, "another network about food, or another network filled with steroid-jacked reality freakazoids?"