If you’ve ever wondered whose crazy idea it was to start a cable TV channel devoted 24/7 to food, how chefs became the new rock stars, and just what those rock star chefs—with names like Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Guy Fieri and Anne Burrell—are like on and off camera, Allen Salkin is here to tell you.
Salkin is the former New York Times reporter whose just-released book, From Scratch: Inside the Food Network, traces the development of the foodie’s CNN from a one-horse operation with a handful of wooden-faced hosts to a cable powerhouse that brings in close to $1 billion annually and produced TV stars like the Mint does pennies but is now facing a corporate mid-life crisis.
You can get his take on all things Food Network on Sunday, Nov. 3, when from 4 to 6 p.m. Salkin will be speaking at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Palm Beach Gardens as part of the center’s 19th annual book fair. Tickets are $45, and you can get them here.
I had the chance to talk to Salkin earlier this week, and while he’s got way too many stories and insights (not to mention juicy gossip) to recount in this blog, I wanted to pass on a few highlights today and Friday, just in case you can’t make it to the JCC. Here are some lightly edited excerpts from our conversation.
BC: Where does Food Network stand in the current cable universe?
AS: The network is making more profit than ever but its ratings are down in the us. Profits are up because it's expanding with new shows into Africa, Asia and Europe. They’ve also been able to leverage their success in licensing the network’s name to food kiosks, kitchen utensils and taking a little piece of books and products sold by their talent. So the business model is good. The only problem is their cultural relevance seems to be decreasing and they’re in the moment where they’re trying to reinvent themselves again.
BC: Is that reinvention as a purveyor of food reality TV?
AS: That was a reinvention. And that reinvention is already played out. The viewers are speaking; they’re tired of the endless reality. But they’re also tired of the traditional “dump and stir” cooking shows. [Over the years] the network has had a few different personalities, and it’s clear that it’s time for them to find a new one.
BC: And that personality is?
AS: first of all, they’ve stopped all their internal production of cooking shows, let go the entire staff. What they’re doing now is taking meetings with producers in Hollywood and New York, hoping the next Duck Dynasty walks in.
BC: So essentially they're just throwing (bleep) at the wall to see what sticks?
BC: Are they concerned that they haven’t been able to develop any new talent since Guy Fieri?
AS: Yes, they are concerned; Guy Fieri was seven years ago. A decade ago they were a star-making machine, creating household names every month—Giada, Paula Deen, Bobby, Sandra Lee, the list goes on. But the problem with stars is that sometimes they become Paula Deen. The network would prefer to have formats that work because it doesn’t like that stars become more expensive over time. And they can go wild, go off the reservation.
BC: So it's not like they're really jonesing after the hard-core foodie audience.
AS: They want whatever audience is going to watch their channel. In the early days they appealed to the foodie audience because that’s all there was. An early slogan was, “Everybody eats.” That’s still true. So the network’s challenge is how to appeal to this thing we all have in common in an entertaining manner. The business of Food Network is not to teach viewers how to cook better or to appreciate kale. The business of Food Network is to get you to watch more Food Network.
BC: And watch Food Network advertising.
AS: And buy toothbrushes and razor blades.
SHAMELESS TEASE, THE SEQUEL: Want to hear Salkin’s take on which Food Network personalities are in and out? Who’s a nice guy (or gal) and who’s a jerk? Check in with this space and Friday and you’ll find out. . .