TV Watch: Bye-bye, Food Network -- it was nice while it lasted
Considering all the extraordinary work Alton Brown did on Good Eats, he remains a real star in my book. Still, can he really be happy having sunk to the level of Cutthroat Kitchen?
You want to know how far I go back with Food Network? When I first got cable (finally! after moving from an apartment where for more than 20 years I'd been unable to have cable because the landlord supposedly wouldn't allow the building to be defaced with cable wiring -- it wasn't till I moved out that I discovered I was pretty much the only one in the building without cable), we didn't even get TVFN till the witching hour of midnight, when NJ Public Television, the daytime occupant of channel 50, signed off the air.
Sometimes Food Network didn't come on till after midnight, when apparently the NJPT switcher literally fell asleep at the switch. At times like that, we would join David Rosengarten's Taste in progress. I've written before about Taste. It was a great show, pioneering the kind of informational content -- each show devoted to an exploration of the hows and whys of a particular ingredietn -- that Alton Brown would later make his inspiration in Good Eats. On Taste, however, there was no attempt at entertainment, and for that matter no production values to speak of. It was just valuable knowledge presented by a caring and concerned food lover and cook.
It goes without saying that Taste as it was done back in the TVFN primitive days could never get on the air today -- all it had going on was a knowledgeable, passionate, and communicative gastronome sharing terrific information. Where's the pizzazz in that? For that matter, of course, based on their early TV appearances, which are often played for laughs in retrospectives of their TV careers, neither could the TV-fledgling Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, or Giada DeLaurentiis get on the air today.
For Good Eats Alton Brown concoted all manner of show-biz pizzazz, and the show was consistently genuinely entertaining. At the same time, though, it was always about the food, imparting wonderful knowledge about how its deliriously wide range of food subjects worked, and didn't work, and inspiring anyone with a grain of curiosity about food to hie to the kitchen to check it out. When the show was canceled after all those many seasons, Alton made it clear that it wasn't because he had run out of subject matter. Presumably the show just cost too much to produce for what monetary return the network could generate from it. Never mind that the library of Good Eats shows is probably the most substantial asset the network has -- if only they could figure out how to market it properly.
Atlon himself remains a Food Network favorite, for his personability, wide-ranging knowledge, and apparently tireless capacity for preparation. He was a natural for hosting Iron Chef America, which he does with remarkable knowledge and attentiveness. If only there were any continuing point to the show itself. Once you've watched a certain number of episodes, is it possible to think of any earthly reason ever to watch it again? But Iron Chef America was a model of gastronomic purposefulness by comparison with the latest venture the Food Network geniuses have roped Alton into, Cutthroat Kitchen, an idiotic and pointless competition that can only have been designed to offend any viewer with a working brain -- that and to humiliate everyone involved.
The Food Network progression wasn't hard to trace. Early on, the network was desperate for viewers, and tried everything it could think of, but by and large the emphasis was on real food and real cooking. There's a myth in circulation that at first the programmers unduly favored restaurant chefs, whose restaurant-style cooking was intimidating to mere home cooks. That's not what I remember. I remember the pros of those days being quite conscious of the realities of the home kitchen.
Still, when more home-style cooks were pressed into service, the results could often still be quite satisfactory, as long as the emphasis was still in food. Oh, there was that awful period when those of us who were waching for food knowledge discovered that now every show had to go out into the field, for no evident purpose except the network brain trust's apparent belief that you couldn't build an audience by just giving them food knowledge and preparation.
Alas, somewhere along the line the balance began to shift, at first not all that perceptibly. Now it wasn't just necessary that the shows be entertaining, being entertaining began to be what mattered most. And maybe the worst thing that happened was that the formula began to work, at least in terms of audience-building. Unfortunately, the law of TV ratings dictates that the content of your programming has to be geared to the least interested viewers, because they're the ones who are most easily lost.
I'm sure the programmers thought they were performing a delicate balancing act. You could see it in the seriousness with which network execs Bob Tushman and Susie Fogelson approached the early seasons of Food Network Star, which I found fascinating, both for the understanding it offered of how a cooking show actually functions (almost completelly different from what I would have imagined) and for the fascination of watching Bob and Susie working to figure out for themselves what exactly they were looking for.
Which made it that much more wistful as what they were looking for changed, and the shows shifted from being about food to being about dazzle and flash, with food always on hand as props. I guess the beginning of the end was the emergence of the the competition shows. Some of them at least tried to pretend to be about the food (I could watch Chopped because as hateful and tedious as most of the contestants have been, the judges nevertheless managed to inject a certain level of knowledge and caring); gradually the trying and the pretense slipped away. Enter the new genre of makeover and undercover-gotcha shows.
Now Food Network appears to be riding high, and I notice that now when I check to see what's on, I can never find anything I would even consider watching. The same has remarkably quickly become true of Food Network's sister channel, Cooking Channel. For a while there were a few shows I could watch and enjoy the company of an agreeable host and also learn something. Now almost any time I check the listings, what's on offer is a show featuring someone I would dread to be trapped in the same room with.
I'm sure the Food Network brass could care less. They seem to be getting the viewers they seem to want. I'm quite used to not being in any group desired by TV programmers. Which seems funny, because goodness knows I spend every dollar I can get my paws on, and am easily impressionable as to what I might spend money on. But no, it doesn't seem to matter. Oh well.