Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Two decades of tasty television

  • Print

NEW YORK -- Talk about an unlikely recipe for success -- a cable network dedicated to... food?

It may not seem even a little preposterous today, but when Food Network launched 20 years ago, North America was sitting at a very different dinner table. After all, this was before we'd learned to fetishize cupcakes, before Instagram made our every mouthful a shared experience, before vegetables had cult followings.

And yet this backwater network launched, plunking cameras in front of chefs -- many of them truly not ready for prime time -- and hoping for the best.

The gamble paid off. Two decades on, the Food Network, and its northern offspring, Food Network Canada, which launched in 2000, has morphed beyond a television station that teaches us how to cook (more about that in a moment). It has become a lifestyle, a marketing behemoth turning chefs -- and home cooks -- into household names even, if not especially, with people who never cook.

"It surprised me at first. But I think now, it doesn't surprise me," longtime network star Bobby Flay said Thursday at a party to celebrate the 20-year milestone during the New York Wine and Food Festival.

When the network launched, North America didn't take food seriously. Less than a decade later, a culinary awakening -- fuelled in part by the network itself -- allowed Food Network to succeed, Flay said.

Food Network didn't invent the food celebrity -- the fame of James Beard, Julia Child and others predate it by decades -- but it codified it into an industry. And it did so with such efficiency, spawning the likes of Flay, Rachael Ray, Tyler Florence and Emeril Lagasse, that other networks were left scrambling.

In many ways, the network was in the right place at the right time. To Giada De Laurentiis, star of Giada at Home among other shows, the right time was 9/11 and the nesting instinct it triggered in so many Americans.

"I truly believe my success is because of 9/11. Had it not been for 9/11, I don't know that I would be here," she said. "It made them think twice about what was important in life."

Today, of course, food television is a crowded field. Bravo helped redefine the reality segment with Top Chef and its various spinoffs. Gordon Ramsay spouts fire on Fox. ABC gave food a golden hour of daytime chat with The Chew. Even CNN and Travel Channel have pulled up a chair, snatching up Food Network alum Anthony Bourdain.

Still, Food Network -- one of many lifestyle brands owned by Scripps Networks Interactive, which also has a share in Food Network Canada -- touts enviable numbers, reaching some 100 million U.S. households, never mind programming in more than 150 countries around the world. It has its own magazine, its own lines of cookware and kitchen gear. Want Food Network wine or tablecloths? There's a product for that.

Of course, that's broad strokes history. There's also plenty in those 20 years the network would rather forget. Paula Deen (conspicuously absent from the party) speaking her mind, anyone? Or not minding her diabetes. And there's Robert Irvine's little flub (the Dinner: Impossible star was fired for fabricating some of the more fantastic parts of his resumé, but later returned with Restaurant: Impossible).

Meanwhile, lower-tier talent love to grumble about stranglehold contracts that give the network near complete control over budding careers.

And then there's the profitability algorithm, which goes something like: less cooking equals more viewers and sizzling ad dollars. It actually took years for the network to get profitable. And many say it did so by turning its back on some if its own fans and stars.

In those early red-ink years, the network was known mostly for food television with a how-to attitude aimed at people who cook. But on television, personality trumps talent, entertainment trounces know-how. That spelled the demise of shows with chefs offering teachable moments at the stove.

To Irvine, it was a smart -- and necessary -- choice.

"We've all got choices now. And our choices are very, very different from what they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago," he said. "The television world has become so cutthroat, they've got to continue coming up with better programing."

So shows like Sara Moulton's easy paced Cooking Live gave way to frenetic competitions like Iron Chef, Chopped and Rachael vs. Guy. The switch from chefs to personalities, from information to entertainment, got ratings and advertisers, but triggered an MTV-style backlash.

Just as the music network was ridiculed for letting videos die, Food Network was ribbed for favouring reality TV over real cooking. Bourdain practically launched his post-Food Network career by bashing it -- as well as some of its less pedigreed stars.

In response, much as MTV launched sister networks to recover its lost ground, Food Network in 2010 created The Cooking Channel, a back-to-basics, edgier sibling.

What about the next 20 years? It's hard to imagine Americans tuning out food-as-entertainment. But that doesn't mean Food Network gets an easy ride. Some of their biggest properties are feeling stale, have been shown the door (Lagasse, for example) or, in Deen's case, simply imploded on their own.

Meanwhile, Food Network hasn't launched a major celebrity since Guy Fieri won The Next Food Network Star in 2006, a lifetime ago in TV years.

"I think that Food Network is trying desperately to evolve," said De Laurentiis. "They cannot stay the same. There is so much competition that there wasn't 20 years ago when they started.

"They're trying to evolve into something. They just are not sure what the next step is yet. They'll get there."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 21, 2013 D1

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Jaws of life used to free two people after two-car collision

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • MIKE.DEAL@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 100615 - Tuesday, June 15th, 2010 The Mane Attraction - Lions are back at the Assiniboine Park Zoo. Xerxes a 3-year-old male African Lion rests in the shade of a tree in his new enclosure at the old Giant Panda building.  MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
  • Perfect Day- Paul Buteux walks  his dog Cassie Tuesday on the Sagimay Trail in Assiniboine Forest enjoying a almost perfect  fall day in Winnipeg- Standup photo – September 27, 2011   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Should the city grant mosquito buffer zones for medical reasons only?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google