That’s Entertainment

Take one part how-to instruction, two parts entertainment, add a dash of game show excitement and you have the recipe for lifestyle programming success. This winning formula has been working for cooking shows since the early 1990s, with Food Network's Emeril Live and popular Japanese export Iron Chef leading the way. More recently, however, both design and cooking series have taken the entertainment factor to new heights, with the help of
August 1, 2002

Take one part how-to instruction, two parts entertainment, add a dash of game show excitement and you have the recipe for lifestyle programming success. This winning formula has been working for cooking shows since the early 1990s, with Food Network’s Emeril Live and popular Japanese export Iron Chef leading the way. More recently, however, both design and cooking series have taken the entertainment factor to new heights, with the help of contest gimmicks and high-profile personalities.

Some in the industry argue that instruction and information are being sacrificed in a genre supposedly about how-to know-how – 79% of respondents to a recent RealScreen Plus poll said lifestyle programming has become too focused on entertainment. Another camp says the information is still there, though it’s presented using a more narrative style. Regardless, the success of the formula – gauged in terms of ratings and, consequently, upfront ad sales – is unquestionable. And, if the proliferation of spinoff shows and related merchandise is any indication, the appetite for entertainment-driven lifestyle programming hasn’t yet peaked.

Reno Revolution

One of the best examples of a lifestyle series that has perfected the formula is TLC’s Trading Spaces. The hit décor series, in which two sets of neighbors swap houses for two days and redecorate a room in each other’s homes, has raised the bar for lifestyle. According to TLC, a recent U.S. Memorial Day marathon of Trading Spaces scored the channel a primetime average of 4.8 million viewers and a 3.5 primetime household rating, beating out the four largest broadcast networks among women 18 to 49 and adults 18 to 34. The show’s executive producer, Denise Cramsey, reveals that the website gets 300 online applications per day from would-be home decorators wanting to appear on the show.

Trading Spaces is a variety show in the true sense,’ says Cramsey of Philadelphia, U.S.-based Banyan Productions. ‘We have a bit of a game show and a bit of a soap opera, because we have the same characters coming back episode after episode who get themselves in crazy situations. The combination of the characters and the suspense make it very successful.’

TLC executive producer Steven Schwartz brought the concept behind Trading Spaces to the U.S. in 1999. Given the task of smoothing out programming flow from daytime to primetime, he chose the successful BBC format Changing Rooms, produced by the U.K.’s Bazal Productions. The format, now owned by Endemol Entertainment, has since sold to 16 countries.

Average costs for lifestyle programming vary depending on whether the show is studio-based or a travelling production. Schwartz says travel costs are the most expensive part of Trading Spaces – roughly 25% of the program’s ballpark US$90,000 per hour budget, though expenses are still relatively low. At press time, Banyan Productions had completed seven of the total 60 episodes for the third season, compared to last year’s 45 episodes.

Trading Spaces also inspired a sister show, the BBC/Discovery coproduction While You Were Out, in which one resident gets a room redone in his/her house without their housemate knowing. While You Were Out premiered on TLC July 6 and will be shown in the Saturday morning block with Trading Spaces, moving to primetime when the new season of the ratings-grabber begins in the fall.

Back in the day

One of the forerunners of the new brand of entertainment-inspired lifestyle programs was Iron Chef. Japan’s Fuji Television began airing Iron Chef- a cooking show that combined elements of a medieval fighting tournament, sporting event and game show – in 1993. It ended its successful run in 1999, and was later dubbed in English and shown on Food Network in the U.S. and Canada. A dubbed program typically doesn’t sell well overseas, but Iron Chef proved exceptional and went on to become one of the top-rated shows on both channels. Says Karen Gelbart, VP of programming for Food Network Canada, of the Iron Chef phenomenon: ‘It’s like the [World Wrestling Entertainment] of food shows. It’s a ton of fun and it has attracted a younger audience for us.’

Also in 1993, Food Network U.S. introduced a program that paved the way for a new breed of lifestyle show. Emeril Live – with its late-night talk show feel, complete with live band and wisecracking host Emeril Lagasse – provided a fresh take on the standard studio cooking production. Consistently a ratings topper, Emeril Live spurred the creation of spinoff The Essence of Emeril and several books, including Primetime Emeril and Emeril’s TV Dinners. Lagasse even ventured out of lifestyle last fall to star in Emeril, a sitcom for U.S. network NBC, even though it was shortlived.

Lagasse is currently halfway through a five-year multi-million-dollar deal with Food Network in the U.S. In Forbes‘ annual Top 100 Celebrities list for 2002, the charismatic chef ranked 80th on the power scale and 79th on the money chart, earning an estimated US$6.7 million. Lagasse is only gaining momentum; he climbed several rungs from 2001, when he was 87th on Forbes‘ money scale (reportedly earning $5 million), and 93 on the power scale. ‘Emeril was a groundbreaker because he appealed to both the high-end food aficionado and the common person who knew very little about food, but wanted to know more,’ says Eileen Opatut, senior VP of programming and production for Food Network U.S. ‘He made food exciting and accessible to all sorts of people, whatever their demographic. Other food shows were geared to a certain demographic, an older demographic. Emeril attracts a broad range.’

But Lagasse’s charm isn’t the only thing that keeps people watching. Explains Opatut: ‘You can’t inform and enlighten people without entertaining them,’ she says. ‘[Lagasse is] charismatic, but if the food information wasn’t sound, he wouldn’t have a lasting audience. You have to have all the pieces together.’

The new lineup of lifestyle stars

Nigella Lawson, host of Nigella Bites, resembles model/actress Elizabeth Hurley rather than your typical cook, but she offers viewers more than just eye candy. Her background is in journalism – she started in news, filing articles for The Sunday Times and the Guardian in the U.K. She later ventured into food writing, eventually winning her own food column for British Vogue. The half-hour show Nigella Bites was commissioned by Channel 4 in 2000 to U.K.-based Pacific Productions. After a successful first season, the popular host decided to take more control of the show’s production; the second season was produced by Flashback Television and Lawson’s own prodco Pabulum Productions. Budgeted at £75,000 (US$110,000) per half-hour, the show is shot on film and features Lawson cooking up comfort food in the kitchen of her London home. Two books have been published since the show began, including the most recent, Nigella Bites (2001).

Barbara Bellini Witkowski, director of sales and coproduction for C4, has sold Nigella Bites to Food Network Canada, Japan’s NHK, Australia’s ABC and E! Style in the U.S., among others. Witkowski says Lawson has become a celebrity in the U.K. ‘In terms of publicity, it’s not difficult to have Nigella featured in a daily or weekly newspaper or magazine,’ says Witkowski. ‘She’s somebody people can identify with, certainly a Channel 4 audience, which is the 18 to 40-year-old demographic. She’s reachable, rather than being an untouchable star.’

Jamie Oliver, star of the BBC’s The Naked Chef, also has the common touch. Combined with slick production values and guests like U.K. funk band Jamiroquai, the program has become a worldwide hit, selling to Japan, Malaysia and Yugoslavia. Produced by London-based Optomen Television, the show has set a precedent for food programming since it first aired in 1999. ‘The Naked Chef was an important show in the development of food TV. Apart from introducing a talented and alluring young chef, it took the idea of a cooking show and made it more stylish and story-driven,’ says Food Canada’s Karen Gelbart. ‘It was produced to look like a rock video. The producers hoped to attract younger viewers and succeeded in broadening the audience for this kind of information.’

The Naked Chef ended after three seasons, but viewers haven’t seen the last of the easy peasy Oliver. Oliver’s Twist, a coproduction with Food Network and FremantleMedia North America, and produced by Oliver’s own prodco Fresh Productions, recently began airing on Food Network in the U.S. In one episode, Oliver cooks up a feast for some friends – friends who happen to be impersonators of ’70s pop supergroup ABBA. Opatut says the main difference between The Naked Chef and Oliver’s new show is the emphasis on narrative. ‘In [Oliver's Twist], he’s encouraging people to cook with and for others. There’s more of a storyline involved.’

Follow the leader

Stories need narrators and, as such, the host is at the forefront in lifestyle programming. ‘It’s key to have an expert that is knowledgeable in their area, but who is also an entertaining TV presenter,’ says HGTV Canada’s Vanessa Case. ‘They’re often right in there on a project, getting their hands dirty. Sometimes they’re just leading us through the story. In the end, they’re the experts we’re going to trust and get to know.’

On HGTV Canada’s Designer Guys, hosts Steven Sabados and Chris Hyndman evoke dynamic duo superheroes who work their home makeover magic. A copro between HGTV and WestWind Pictures (both based in Toronto), Designer Guys stands out because the hosts sometimes disagree on design choices. But, their dissent ultimately leads to education. ‘On design shows we had seen, every designer agreed with every other designer,’ explains WestWind’s Mary Darling. ‘There was never a point where you could learn something because a designer had a different opinion than another. The inspiration [for Designer Guys] came from the fact that design programs felt too soft.’ The series also offers viewers a four-minute how-to segment that leads them step-by-step through design projects.

Designer Guys has been sold to Discovery Home and Leisure in the U.S., and is seen in Thailand, Australia and Israel. The show is consistently in the list of top 10-rated shows on HGTV and has inspired product launches, proving the lucrative opportunities available beyond the license fee. A Designer Guys CD with music from the show has been released, and a book, Finding Your Personal Style, comes out in spring 2003. Other new Designer Guys sanctioned products are also in the works: a fragrance line, fabric line and a line of paints are being considered.

While instructional advice is a key element to the success of Designer Guys, the emphasis on drama has paved the road to merchandise spinoffs. ‘They’re unfolding a story, an emotional rollercoaster ride, as they’re deciding how to decorate a room,’ says HGTV’s Case. ‘They take you through their journey of redesigning and then there’s the reveal [of the design]. That narrative is important and critical to understanding when watching the show.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.