Monday, July 14, 2008

The Food Network - How Did We Get Here From There?

I've been thinking lately about how the Food Network got to be the Food Network and I remembered that I had a Chefography episode about just that thing. I wanted to figure out how the glory days of Mario, Emeril and Sara led us to where we are today. This is how it happened:

The first scene is of a baby-faced Emeril, Bobby and Sara, who looks exactly the same today. We’re told that the Food Network began as a series of cooking demonstrations. The shows had such low budgets that they taped them all the way through without stopping the camera.

Bob Tuschman begins by telling us that a channel devoted to food is a channel devoted to living. We hear from the president of The Food Network (THEY all say Food Network without the THE. I think it sounds weird). Brooke Johnson, president of (the) Food Network says their goal is “to make cooking more fun and accessible to people”.

In 1963, Julia “re-defined and re-energized” food television on PBS. She was followed by many major food personalities with their own PBS shows – Martin Yan and Jacques Pepin for example. In 1992, CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld decided to start the CNN equivalent of food news. The TV Food Network started on November 23rd, 1993 in a small New York City studio.

Interestingly, the TV Food Network didn’t have a kitchen, so they concentrated on food NEWS shows, with the occasional cooking demo. I vaguely remember Food News & Views with David Rosengarten and Donna Hanover. They filled the rest of their 24 hour programming with repackaged cooking shows from the 1950’s and 60’s.

I don’t remember Robin Leach’s Talking Food. But apparently that was the first show Bobby was on with co-host Kate Connelly. His 15 minute cooking segments were so long that he got to know her well enough to marry her. (She was wife number two. His third and current wife is the talented and gorgeous Stephanie March.)

In 1994 came How to Boil Water with Emeril and the rest, as they say, is history. He was little known, like the network, when they started this “cooking show for beginners.”

In 1996, Food Network gave Emeril his own Essence of Emeril. TV Guide called it one of the top 10 TV shows of the year. We learn that Emeril started “BAM!” as a way to keep people awake after taping 8 shows a day.

In 1994, the Food Network, relocated to a 3000 square foot studio with flimsy kitchen sets. Bob tells us that then the network concentrated on “just” cooking shows, as if that somehow was a lowly enterprise. Marc Summers says the shows were educational, not necessarily entertaining.

I’m not really liking the characterization of the old food network as boring on account of their mainly instructional shows. Fine, add your road shows and competitions and other stuff, but keep the good old stuff too. Weren’t any of these people scouts? (Goodness knows they love to throw in a girl scout at a moment’s notice.) Don’t they remember Make new friends, but keep the old?

We see their very basic kitchens in the studio with just burners. It was funny to see Mario pretend to take something out of the oven, when he was really just reaching down and grabbing it off a shelf.

And with no budget for editing, we see Bobby struggling with a food processor and Mario cutting his hand and then dunking it in tomatoes so the blood wouldn’t show! Boy, did that sting! Sara had 3 fires on her show LIVE!

The early days were built around fantastic chefs. They had a show called Chef Du Jour which featured lots of New York chefs. It was a way for them to vet new stars for their network. Bobby said there was prejudice at the time amongst restaurant chefs about appearing on television. My how times have changed! They showed Mario and Tyler who looked 12 years old. Plus Too Hot Tamales…Loved them.

The Food Network “survived and thrived”. In 1997, it was bought by Scripps, owner of HGTV. They began to “break out of the studio.” to “show food in a whole new way”, according to Bob. They pumped money into the network and upped the quality of the shows.

Emeril Live was the hallmark of the revamped channel with its live audience, band and celebrity guests. (Fine Living has just started airing Emeril Live, including some never before seen shows.)

Alton Brown was introduced in 1999 with Good Eats. His shtick included oven and fridge cams.

A Food Network executive saw the Japanese version of Iron Chef in 1998, when it was shown on just a few stations in the States. He was enthralled. The Food Network began broadcasting the original in July of 1999. (I had forgotten how funny the dubbed English voices are. Japanese food tasters sure giggle a lot.)

Okay, here’s a test. What new Food Network host of 2001 said, “You’re champagne, I’m beer”? Of course, it should have been more like “You’re champagne, I’m Kool-Aid. “

Yup, it was none other than Rachael Ray who started a whole progression of non-chef hosts (but the others were REAL food professionals – Paula, Ina in 2002 with a party at the end of each show, Giada, oh and Aunt Sandy in 2003. The FN had 75 million viewers by 2003 in great part because of their Saturday morning cooking shows.

In July of 2004, they moved to a fantastic new building in Chelsea. They had well-equipped kitchens, lots of studios and they began featuring more travel shows and other “entertainment” type offerings, like Unwrapped and competition shows like the World Series of Barbecue.

In 2005, with Bobby Flay, Mario and Morimoto behind the stove, they launched another version of IC - Iron Chef America. Alton Brown hosted. Bob said it got its chops from the fact that chefs are by nature competitive.

We get a glimpse of one of their newest hosts Anne Burrell as Mario’s sous chef on Iron Chef. That was fun. They reminded us of the debacle of Bobby and Giada losing to Mario and Rach.

We’re told that viewers like the drama, tension and artistry of those various competitions. TNFNS is so out that league that it’s pathetic. The only artistry is in Susie’s carefully arranged curls. The tension comes from looking at the clock and wishing the hour was over NOW.

They use Ingrid as an example of new cuisines that they’re anxious to include. That’s fine if you consider an inability to pronounce Worcestershire sauce the only requirement of an authentic Latin show.

They say in the old days of the Food Network, food took a back seat, but now “the preparation and appearance of food is a priority.” Bob says something funny, (yeah he did). “The food practically has its own its own agent, its own makeup person, its own stylist.”

Then they talked about how they look for talent in many different ways. They talked about finding Guy and being in 95 million homes. Bob says how lucky they are to have so many of their first generation stars and that they’re always looking for new talent.

They should show this history of the network more often. I have to admit it did leave me feeling all warm and fuzzy about some of my favorites on the Food Network. But then…THEN, I get kind of enraged when I remember that the legacy of Mario and Sara and Emeril could very well end up in the hands of a self-described “actor and server” with questionable culinary skills named Adam Gertler.


Emiline said...

Good recap of the show. I think I watched part of this.
I'm not sure how I feel about how Food Network has evolved. I guess change is to be expected. But I do miss the days of Sara, Emeril and Mario. Of course, Bobby is still there.

It's fine to do traveling and competition shows, but I do wish they showed more in-the-kitchen shows at night. I always like it when they have the All-Star shows.

I'm nervous about saying anything bad about Food Network.

Mmmm...Kool aid. I haven't had that in a long time.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

I would certainly like to see more cooking shows by real experts. It's funny that they brought up "How to Boil Water". I loved that idea of focusing on techniques for the beginner cook. (I loved the snooty French guy working with the clueless lady iwth the glasses.)

When I see real cooking shows, I get inspired to make their recipes, which makes me visit the site more and buy the cookbooks more. FN should understand this.

As for Bob and Susie, I hate them, but I do wish my hair would look more like Susie's.

Anonymous said...

I remember I first watched FN my senior year in high school, when visiting NY for Christmas. My aunt got all the cable channels, and I'd stay up late watching Emeril and Two Hot Tamales. I started college in 1993, in DC, and my first Thanksgiving I spent in NY, and I was SOOO Excited to go because I'd get to watch Food Network. I'd watch Emeril and talk about how foie gras was so good, and some spicy sausage he'd always use (whose name eludes me at the moment). I had no idea what foie gras was, and when I found out I was like, eww, um no.

I do miss Sara Moulton, but I never liked Mario, although I do have a cookbook of his now and like it. I think they need a better mix - I do think Rachael Ray & Semi-Homemade have their place, because there are people who are too intimidated. At least Rachael makes cooking easy and fun, and some of her stuff tastes good and can be healthy (please don't kill me for saying that!). My husband was looking through the Semi-Homemade cookbook he got me for my birthday (again, don't kill me!), and the recipes he was looking at were things he could do without being intimidated. I think they're good jumping off points for people who NEVER cook. If they do "simple" things and like it, they'll progress. Which is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

The thing that makes me crazy about FN now is the "recycling" they are doing of many of the older shows. "Rescue Chef" was "Food 911" (with a much more likeable and handsome host), "How'd That Get On My Plate?" was "Food Finds" and/or "Unwrapped" and "Road Tasted" is now "Road Tasted with the Neeleys." They need better development people at FN. Even I can think of programming I would like to see instead of these rehashed shows!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I forgot one other "new" show. Ted of Queer Eye has a show about the chemistry of food, etc. Excuse me FN, that's Alton's show "Good Eats"!!!

Anonymous said...

very good recap, i agree.

emiline, why are you "nervous about saying anything bad about Food Network"?

Emiline said...

Wow, there's a question for me on here!

Answer: Uhhh...can't say.

Sue said...

Hi Em,
I guess it’s too much to expect that the Food Network would do COOKING shows.

One day you’ll have to explain the Kool-Aid guy clip to me…

Hi Rach,
You would think that having a good cooking show and the subsequent selling of all the stuff associated with it would encourage the Food Network to do more cooking shows. I don’t think people buy too much stuff after watching the Neelys go to a pig farm, or wherever they go, on their new show.

Susie has nice hair. And Bob is real sensitive.

Hi Amy,
I completely AGREE with your first paragraph. Yes, the Food Network was exciting, I suppose in part, because it was so new, but it was also GOOD!

About RR and Aunt Sandy - I have had a passing positive thought or two that at least Rachael cooks with real food when she makes her godawful multi-meat-laden creations (but those thoughts don’t usually last long.) But Sandy…SANDY!!! There is NO excuse for her. There is no excuse for using POWDERED salad dressing or “fresh” from the refrigerator case, mashed potatoes. Her entire concept is vile - 70% poison and 30% food. The bad definitely overwhelms the good and you might just as well get a drip as eat her food. In fact, it would definitely have fewer chemicals.

That’s true Anon,
But I guess that's true in all of popular culture. One successful show spawns many wannabe's, but usually they're not EXACTLY the same as the original.

I'm sure that Alton is bit ticked that Ted has that new show.

Thank you Anon….

Tracy said...

I refused to watch that episode. Thanks for the recap. That's all I needed.

Maybe Emiline is trying to be on The Next Food Network Star. That would actually be cool!