Viewpoint: Food programming in the digital age

How can linear food programming find new audiences in a digital age where celeb chefs are expanding their empires away from television? K7 Media's Clare Thompson (pictured) considers the burgeoning trends in the genre.
November 12, 2015

How can linear food programming find new talent and audiences in a time when such top chefs as Jamie Oliver are expanding their empires away from television? Clare Thompson, non-executive director at Manchester-based consultancy group K7 Media and former head of entertainment development at ITV, considers new programming trends on the horizon.

As in so many areas of specialist factual content, there are myriad non-linear opportunities for new talent to find an audience, and food programming is no different.

Jamie Oliver may have risen to prominence on the back of his Naked Chef series, but his YouTube channel, FoodTube, has been a leader in opening up the platform for new talent in the UK. It’s now all about the most direct conversation with his audience, and nurturing protégés personally through online partnerships with brands instead of broadcasters.

If even one of the UK’s most successful TV chefs is expanding his empire away from television, what can traditional TV food programming do to compete?

Diversify is the obvious answer. This means moving away from the “how to” instructional approach that has dominated food shows for more than 60 years, and finding new ways to explore not only the recipes, but also their relevance to the wider culture and what they say about the personalities of those cooking them.

Food-based magazine shows are a step in this direction, and are proving popular in the UK. Shows such as What’s Cooking, Saturday Kitchen and most recently Sunday Brunch bring together a gang of chefs, foodies and celebrities to chat, demonstrate recipes and interact with viewers. These shows are easily branded, provide reliable viewer engagement and still fit into a contained studio environment.

Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver

Broadening the genre further, there are increasing opportunities to include food content in celebrity access and even business documentaries. As more and more stars start to diversify into food and hospitality ventures, the cross-over opportunities here for seeing well-known faces grappling with food and business risks don’t yet feel sufficiently milked. Bunim/Murray’s forthcoming access series following Boy George’s move to LA will feature his launch of a vegan food line, for example. More like this will surely follow.

But, as Jamie has identified with his FoodTube venture, the biggest online-influenced move has been stepping away from big-name chefs and celebrities, and towards ‘amateur’ food bloggers such as Ella Henderson and the Chiappa sisters, who claim no formal culinary training, but present their recipes to audiences as part of an integrated, healthy and very personal lifestyle.

Indeed, 20 years ago, we relied on TV producers to find these stars for us – Oliver, on his Vespa with his bachelor pad full of mates, being the original. Now, the foodie landscape is packed with these homespun cooks showing us their recipes online, and the bar has been raised for the TV version. Oliver, for example, has to have a bigger travel budget, and a wider purpose, such as travelling around the world in search of the secrets to a longer life and less middle-aged spread, such as in Jamie’s Super Food.

In a world where we expect to be able to find the answers to anything online – and, in particular, to know more about our food and where it comes from – this kind of show is also part of a growing trend towards programs that tell the global stories of food and how it gets to our plates. Programs such as Channel 4′s Food Unwrapped cater to this thirst for information – giving us both the investigative stuff and fun ‘how do they do that?’ facts that are popular currency both on TV and online.

Elsewhere, the opportunities to fuse food programming with other genres are still to be fully explored.

Norwegian show Dining with the Enemy (Til Bords Med Fienden) is a good example of how food can be used as a conduit for current affairs. In the show, a chef and news correspondent travel to war-torn regions of the world to explore local food, and the background to regional conflicts. At the end, they cook a traditional meal for members of the opposing sides. The format has sold into the U.S., and illustrates how food can help in telling wider cultural stories.

Meanwhile, another burgeoning trend involves narrowing the lens of food coverage. “Less Is More” might well be the mantra for Britain’s chefs at the moment, with countless restaurants popping up based on just one ingredient done well (chicken, eggs, cereal), and food books and related TV shows are also pushing a similarly minimalist approach.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recent book and show combo was Three Good Things, while Nigella Lawson’s latestSimply Nigella, offers “recipes to make you less stressed.” Consider, also, that Paul Hollywood based an entire series on bread alone. Expect to see more deep dives into single ingredients or simple processes that have not been fully explored before.

Simplicity, ‘amateur,’ sharing and provenance are the buzzwords for the modern foodie landscape, and these are also the elements that draw viewers to the more intimate, informative and accessible world of online content. There’s no reason they can’t also be part of linear food shows – provided we use the correct ingredients.

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.