Saturday, November 02, 2013

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?

by Ken

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.

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At 8:10 PM, Blogger fry1laurie said...

I agree wholeheartedly. Alton Brown's immense talent is being totally wasted, and those competition shows are just chefs trying to impress other chefs with some ungodly combination no one could reproduce at home. That's why I started watching the Food network, to get tips on what to make myself. That's long gone, however, and now my attention seems to turn to shows like "Wheeler Dealers" that show how to fix car problems.

At 8:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't get Food Network until about 2003 when it was added to my Family Cable package.

I especially loved Good Eats and Molto Mario because both offered so much sheer information in each show, all of it interesting and delivered beautifully. I became a better cook and really began to understand how a recipe was constructed, how and why it worked, and what made it delicious.

For frivolous entertainment, there was Emeril Live. The concept was so goofy, but Emeril, stiff and repetitive as he was, had a shtick that worked. I think he was a better chef than he seemed, but Food Network corrupted him as they did so many other celebrity chefs with media deals and product lines on QVC. Emeril hasn't been able to recapture the magic since FN dumped him for younger, less expensive chefs who they could sign to exclusive media, cookbook and product deals.

The same happened to Batali. He was arguably the only reason to watch Iron Chef America but even he got lazy. Batali won nearly every match he competed in but toward the end he seemed to be phoning it in and bribing the judges by pulling out a giant truffle and showering dishes with a blizzard of truffle shavings. Food Network had to get rid of him because he was too independent, with a string of enormously successful restaurants, deals with the Bastianich family, including PBS' Lidia Bastianich, and his own lines of cookware and cookbooks. Why should FN give Batali airtime to further his personal brand (in which FN will never get a share of the profits) when they could groom newbies, give them shows and control everything including products, sales and publicity?

BTW, regarding FN and Batali, there has been nothing better written about both than a guest blog post on Ruhlman's blog by Anthony Bourdain. Ruhlman's cleared it off his blog, but it's still available on the Wayback Machine:

The only older chef (as distinct from cooks, like Rachael Ray) who escaped that fate was Bobby Flay, maybe because he became ubiquitous. At one point, it seemed as if Flay had at least 18 different shows on FN, including a few of the competition shows.

As you described, competition shows became the next form of "entertainment" to clog up the prime time hours, inspired first by Japan's Iron Chef. It started innocently enough, with traditional cake and confectionary contests, and then morphed into weirder and weirder challenges with a revolving crew of the same competitors and judges. Then came the celebrity chef vs. home cook, the war of the pros, amateur vs. amateur, celebrity-led teams. Chopped is an abomination. Food Network Star is a disgusting gauntlet designed to winnow a bunch of idiots down to the perfect Kitchen Tool.

(To be continued....)

At 8:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Continued from above...)

I think my worst disappointment is with Alton Brown. He used to be fun. He used to be funny. I don't know if it was his weight loss, or if celebrity went to his head, or if he really was always this way, but he now exhibits all the signs of an obnoxious jerk completely full of himself. I first started getting glimpses of a nastier side to his personality on those two road trip miniseries he did. I didn't like how he talked to and about some of the people he met, and there were flashes of an imperiousness with his crew that made me think I would not want to work for this man. I don't know, but in my view he just seems to barely hide a sneering superiority these days.

Who cares anyway, when half the FN schedule seems to be Diners, Drive-ins and Dives? Guy Fieri, the Guy so many people love to hate, found his El Dorado on FN, via The Next Food Network Star. He parlayed his win into an empire devoted to greasy spoon man-food. I actually felt embarrassed for him when the NYTimes food critic eviscerated Fieri's new Times Square House O' Crap Eats. It was an epic take down:

These days, the only thing I watch on FN is the utterly insane Restaurant Stakeout. It's one of their silly reality shows, and as cockamamie and el cheapo as it is, I can't get enough of it. It's completely formulaic and predictable. The "star" is Willy "Jack" Degel, owner of a string of steak houses which he proclaims are "Number 1 in the world in service!"

Willy looks like a Jersey Shore bouncer stuffed into a suit and pink silk tie. He lumbers into the joint under surveillance to deliver his smack down in the ripest Jersey/Bronx/Brooklyn accent heard since the '92 revival of Guys and Dolls at the Martin Beck. He's priceless.

My cable package doesn't include the Cooking Channel, so I can't comment on its rise and decline. I'm sure it will devolve into the lowest common denominator 'ere long.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment on a fun topic. Politics makes me so sick at this point that I can barely express my snarling outrage before I choke and my blood pressure skyrockets. This is a chance to be bilious with a carefree heart.


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