Spicing it up

Competitions, travelogs and live events add ingredients to the factual food mix.
May 1, 2009

No longer just confined to the studio kitchen, food programming has thrown the recipes out the window and gone mass market, rising quickly up the ranks of the lifestyle genre and indeed, spanning genres. What once was the domain of very specific networks has now spilled onto a number of unlikely networks’ primetime slates worldwide.

For example, in the UK, food programming can be found on Channel 4 in primetime. BBC One picked up competition-show MasterChef from secondary channel BBC Two. Now, the region’s specialized food programming digital channel, UKTV Food, has broadened its reach.

Richard Kingsbury, UKTV Food channel head, says that the channel was originally developed for the serious foodies. UKTV Food’s programming, classified as ‘Chop and Chat,’ originally targeted ‘domestic professionals,’ a female-skewed, over-50 demographic that had the time and money to indulge its passion in food.

Today the network tries to appeal both to that core demo and a wider audience looking for food-flavored fare in the evenings. The network now offers up additional programming that doesn’t have any practical takeaway in the form of recipes and tips, with food travelogs, food competitions and obs-docs like the U.S.’ Ace of Cakes. ‘It was a revelation in a way that both our core audience and the audience that wasn’t watching us were looking for more than just ‘Chop and Chat,” says Kingsbury.

The Food Network in the U.S. has also gone the route of appealing to both food aficionados and a more general audience with two distinct programming blocks. Bob Tuschman, Food Network’s SVP programming and production, says while its instructional block – dubbed ‘In the Kitchen’ – airs mornings and early afternoons on weekends and up until early evening on weekdays, primetime is about entertaining. ‘You’ll still learn things, but it’s through entertainment,’ says Tuschman, whether it’s in the form of competition, travel, history, docusoap or even comedy.

Kingsbury feels networks need to be careful with their balance of instructional and entertainment offerings, as the proliferation of studio cooking shows is overwhelming audiences. ‘There’s a huge volume of daytime competition-based cookery shows that are in studios and they all look the same; I think the audience is getting quite tired of those,’ he says. ‘But I think the best of those will survive, and a lot of that relies on talent.’

Most of the execs polled agree that talent is the game changer in this genre. ‘You can produce [a] travel show with one talent, [and] it could be the biggest hit for your channel, and with another it could be an also-ran,’ Tuschman says. He cites his network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives as an example. The show has a great format on its own, but Tuschman says that host Guy Fieri ‘jettisoned it into the stratosphere and made it our number one show.’

Naturally, The Food Network has devoted itself to finding top food stars. ‘It’s what we do every day. We’re in touch with every arm of the food world, every culinary school, every magazine and every agent who represents food people,’ says Tuschman.

The Travel Channel looks for ‘impassioned insiders,’ according to SVP of content Michael Klein. He cites the popularity of Anthony Bourdain, whose passion for food becomes the entry point for the destinations visited in his No Reservations series. Klein says that talent must be attached when a show is pitched to them. He says that he often hears pitches that are too basic, but, as he puts it, ”person will go around the country experiencing delicious delectable donuts” won’t cut it. ‘[When] you have the face of that franchise, that becomes a game changer,’ he says.

Beyond on-air talent and working with producers who know how to artfully shoot food to make it look stunning, the third ingredient for a successful food franchise is that extra value a show can give the viewer. Kingsbury says that the most successful extra value offering his network provides is the food and travel genre, as seen in the popularity of Gary Rhodes’ food travelogs. The Rhodes Across … series has touched down in China, India and this year, the Caribbean. ‘Something that’s based in a foreign country is quite timeless, and that’s great value for us, to have thematic programming that can repeat,’ he says.

Sitting in Pictures’ Kylie Kwong: My China is a culinary travelog that takes Kwong, a celebrity chef living in Australia, to visit her ancestral village in China and experience the regional cultures through food. But taking the nine-episode series out of the controlled environment of the studio meant some logistical hiccups. ‘Scenes are entirely shot on location where many factors are beyond our control,’ says producer Sohkiak Chang in an e-mail. ‘China is a very busy country, and filming in large cities like Shanghai is a sheer nightmare for both camera and sound.’ She had to deal with ugly overhanging electrical cables, honking cars and pneumatic drills.

Scripts were written loosely to allow for situations that would arise unexpectedly and the crew made the most out of what they could, faced with instances of filming in tiny spaces with no room to maneuver and poor lighting. Chang says that shooting in HD caused some issues when ‘fabulous scenes in normal 4:3 framing would reveal, on 16:9, an errant onlooker preoccupied with some biological discharge.’

She says the series required a different sort of production workflow, where equal amounts of time were spent on pre-production planning, production and post-production as opposed to ‘the average cookery show where 80% of the show is completed at the pre-production/production stage.’

All of the challenges and extra time spent to create Kylie Kwong also led to unexpected happy surprises, like when Kwong plunged into a muddy lotus lake or arm-wrestled a tea farmer in Hangzhou. ‘These moments made the show as it removed Kylie from the sedate studio kitchen into the unknown realm of location filming in a foreign territory,’ says Chang.

Johanna Eliot, president and executive director at Nova Scotia-based Ocean Entertainment, cites similar success with their culinary adventure series featuring Chef Michael Smith. Chef Abroad is the latest series, and Eliot stresses that it really doesn’t fall under the category of cooking show. ‘It’s not about the recipes, it’s about the culture and the cuisine of that culture,’ she says. ‘It’s more about the characters that we meet in those countries, and how Michael interacts with the people that he meets along the way.’

Connecting with people takes on a whole other meaning when it comes to Cookalong Live, an interactive live cookery show hosted by perhaps the king of the celeb chefs, Gordon Ramsay. The Optomen production began as a special for Channel 4 and then turned into a seven-episode series last October.

Prior to the airdate, ingredients and equipment lists were released, as well as a preparatory training video on C4′s website. On the night of the show, Ramsay would cook in real time for an hour as people cooked along with him in their homes. Optomen, the prodco behind other food fare such as Two Fat Ladies, The Naked Chef and Kitchen Nightmares, considered Cookalong Live an exciting opportunity.

Ben Adler, Optomen’s group development director and executive producer on Cookalong Live, says that the response to the show was beyond expectations. C4′s website had a map of the UK where people could enter their addresses and a small chef’s hat would mark their locations to signify that they’d be cooking along. ‘Two weeks before the show, there were just a couple of dozen hats, but by the day of the first show, there were tens of thousands covering the whole of the UK from top to bottom,’ Adler says.

The show wasn’t without its challenges. Adler says a major hurdle was in finding recipes that could be started and finished within a short time span. Menus also couldn’t call for repeated use of pots and pans since there wouldn’t be time to wash them. On top of that, the production company had to coordinate satellite links and webcams to keep up with people cooking along across the country.

Adler says the show’s success hinged on people responding to its interactivity, and jumping at the chance to learn how to cook a three-course meal with one of the world’s top chefs. Ramsay and Optomen have formed a new company, One Potato Two Potato, which will pair the two for the next seven years, and now the format is heading to Australia and the U.S.

The advent of the food competition show was one of the more important recent innovations in food programming, and such programs are still able to bring in the ratings. Bravo’s last season of the Magical Elves-produced Top Chef drew in an average of almost three million adults aged 18 to 49 and almost four million total viewers. With five successful seasons under Bravo’s belt, the Magical Elves will be producing the sixth season of Top Chef and spin-off Top Chef Masters, proving that food competition is still very much in demand.

Still, while networks that specialize in food programming are keeping their eyes peeled for the latest in the genre, Sohkiak Chang offers that the classics (think Julia Child) will never go out of style. ‘As I experiment with the cross-genre series, I often get comments from viewers who would prefer the details; they don’t mind watching water boil,’ she says. ‘Is the day of a food show in the kitchen over? I say [it's] not, since TV itself is being redefined.’

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor-in-chief and content director for Realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to Realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.