Food Rules

Once the province of how-to cooking shows, food media has extended its reach—but has it become too big?

Next week, ABC’s All My Children will be replaced after four decades on the air by The Chew, a lifestyle show whose hosts include three chefs and which stars the food in your refrigerator. Who could have predicted that network TV would trade sex, scandal, and drama for dough hooks and mixing bowls? But consumers’ relationship with food now has less to do with lining stomachs and more to do with entertainment and reaction to an economy that fosters domesticity.

It stands to reason that food media would be doing quite well—and it is. Food-related TV programming has exploded; the mainstay stand-and-stir cooking shows are expanding and splintering into myriad permutations, from reality shows and competitions to, at last count, 11 shows just about cake and cupcakes. Culinary apps on how to braise beef or make a graham cracker crust are proliferating almost daily (Martha Stewart’s Smoothies and Cookies hit No. 1 in paid iPad lifestyle apps this summer), and a plethora of blogs leaves no food need or fetish untouched.

Even battered print media is doing fine when it comes to cuisine. “For the first time since I started tracking magazines in the 1980s, food has become the No. 1 category for three years in a row,” says Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism.

While it seems the interest in food is reaching a peak, it has gone beyond mere fad and become, at its base, a lifestyle shift.

“I believe this new food moment is really just us catching up,” says author, former Gourmet editor-in-chief, and Gilt Taste editorial adviser Ruth Reichl. “Other countries have been thinking about food in an interesting way for most of their history. That Gourmet started in 1941 as the first epicurean magazine in this country is absurd. In France, one of the great cookbook writers did recipe radio in the 1930s.”

From a TV perspective, the shift is part of what journalist and food author Michael Pollan has called the transformation of cooking “from something you do to something you watch.” Behind us are not only Julia Child and the Frugal Gourmet—and the housewives they catered to—but also the Food Network’s original stand-and-stir recipe of prime-time shows. Yes, its daytime programs lean toward how to cook—albeit quickly and effectively, cutting corners encouraged—but also how to wear the new fall clothes and how to improve your sex life. Its prime-time offerings? Shows such as The Great Food Truck Race and Restaurant: Impossible.

And, of course, given both the recession and the growing number of foodies who also want to cook, how-to shows have not lost their allure. Despite an increase in two-income households and the number of prepared and prepackaged foods in the aisles, an economy as flat as a kimchi pancake means more meals at home, and, in turn, the trying out of recipes and the need for food budget tips. According to a 2011 Food Marketing Institute U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends study, for instance, 61 percent of households with kids are preparing more meals at home than they did last year.

Entertainment, however, rules. Ratings for many competition shows are going strong. The Next Food Network Star’s seventh season finale drew 4.23 million viewers, according to Nielsen, approximately 1.91 million of which were 18-49, nearly doubling the June 5 season premiere’s audience of 2.23 million viewers. That it includes viewers relatively young is no coincidence; the food space wouldn’t have expanded and splintered without a corresponding change in audience. According to a 2010 Harris Poll, 50 percent of Americans watch TV shows about cooking and no, they weren’t all women. Forty-six percent of men said they watch cooking shows very often or occasionally, 57 percent of boomers watch cooking shows very often or occasionally, and 43 percent of the 18-33 crowd do the same.

Laureen Ong, president of the Travel Channel, which offers such programs as the stunt-eating Man v. Food Nation and the gross-out Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern (bull penis soup, anyone?), says, “I would give a nod to our sister network Food Network for raising the interest level to being more than just a utility. It found a contemporary and entertaining way to address the food space, and that’s why so many people in the general entertainment space are playing in the food category.”

Food is now “more than just a meal to feed your family—it’s an experience,” adds Dustin Smith, head of communications at TLC, whose shows include Cake Boss and Next Great Baker. “Docu series and competition formats emerged in response, treating food and chefs and the cooking process as high-energy entertainment. . . . Food ends up becoming another character in these series, rather than a theme or genre.”

Viewers also find food personalities, many of whom are a mix of raw aggression and finesse, extraordinarily compelling. On Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, Gordon Ramsay may bully a restaurant owner into fixing a failing business, but he’s also a nurturer who steps behind the stove and whips up pretty, delicate dishes. (Out of all food shows, by the way, Hell’s Kitchen has the highest ad revenue, averaging $125,000 for a 30-second spot.)

And celebrity chefs are now purveyors of a nightlife that combines food, movie stars, and, increasingly, the world of fashion. Just last week, Marcus Samuelsson, who has competed in Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, hosted a party at his New York restaurant, Red Rooster, for a line of clothes from Edun, started by Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson.

The changing makeup of the audience has meant dollars from advertisers outside the mainstay of food and other consumer packaged goods. There is a “much more diverse portfolio of advertising categories, including a lot of support from automotive as well as retail and even expanding into telecom and financial,” says Mike Rosen, president of media buying agency Starcom.

A glance at the sponsors of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters illustrates that shift clearly: The show receives support from home-appliance brand KitchenAid but also luxury-car manufacturer Lexus. During its third season, which aired in 2011, upscale credit card Chase Sapphire signed on for the first time.

Food magazines have mostly fared as well as TV. The glaring exception is Gourmet, a victim of Condé Nast’s cost-cutting measures; its demise speaks to the democratization of food media and the sense that Gourmet was snobby and old.

Food Network Magazine, launched in 2009, has displayed one of the most impressive circulation trajectories regardless of genre: For the first half of 2011, according to the latest report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, average total circulation was 1.5 million, with more than 338,000 single copies sold, a 5 percent increase over the prior reporting period. For the sixth time since its launch, it’s raising its rate base, to 1.4 million, effective with the January/February 2012 issue, according to the company.

The brightly colored magazine—geared toward moms—is big on the network’s celebrity chefs, easy dinner recipes, “fun” ideas like PB-and-J cake, and 50 recipes to make with bacon. “The magazine’s been incredibly successful at bringing a sense of accessibility and fun to the epicurean magazine world, which not long ago was perceived as extremely ‘precious,’ ” says Vicki Wellington, publisher and chief revenue officer at Food Network Magazine.

The publications themselves tend to fall into two mass-market categories: those that stick to recipes, like Everyday Food, Cooking Light, and Taste of Home; and those that add liberal doses of lifestyle content, which, in addition to Food Network Magazine, includes the more sophisticated Saveur and Food & Wine. Bon Appétit is headed in this latter direction under new editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport, who hopes to add men and younger food-blog readers to the magazine’s mostly female, middle-age readership. He’s also throwing in some glamour: Gwyneth Paltrow is on the cover of the June 2011 issue.

Targeting men, whether for magazines or TV, was inevitable, given the data. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year 41 percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 68 percent of women. In 2003, the same study found 20 percent of men reported doing housework as opposed to 55 percent of women. Apps popular with men, such as How to Cook Everything and Weber’s On the Grill, were the third and fourth (respectively) most downloaded lifestyle apps for iPads and iPhones last year, according to Apple.

Advertisers spent more than $315 million in food-related print publications during the first half of 2011, according to an Adweek tally of data for 10 titles from Publishers Information Bureau.* While that represented a roughly 1.4 percent overall decrease from the same magazines for the same period in 2010, several large-circulation magazines showed increases: Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Saveur, and Food Network Magazine all drew more revenue.

Bon Appétit publisher Pamela Drucker Mann attributes much of the change to packaged food advertisers like Kellogg’s and Nestlé, which have had to scale back their buys in some food titles, as rising production costs and consumer flight to generics simultaneously squeeze their spending. From January through July of 2011, Kellogg’s advertising, for example, was down 28 percent across the titles Bon Appétit defines as its competitive set: Cooking Light, Everyday Food, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Food Network Magazine, Food & Wine, and Saveur. But increased interest from other categories helped offset that drop. Business technology was up 45 percent, health and pharmaceutical up 35 percent, beauty up 14 percent, and auto up 10 percent in those same titles, according to Mann.

Niche media has grown as well. Even author Dave Eggers is getting in on the game: His publishing house, McSweeney’s, recently launched the new food and lifestyle quarterly Lucky Peach with chef David Chang. The politics of food alone—having mostly to do with where it has been sourced and whether it's organic—has given birth to a deluge of popular blogs, such as Sustainable Table (sustainabletable.org), and magazines like Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. Readers, says Darra Goldstein, editor-in-chief of the quarterly, “range from hip 20-somethings to the kind of well-heeled readership that also likes The New Yorker.” Andrew Knowlton, restaurant editor at Bon Appétit and a former Iron Chef America judge (a Food Network program), adds that “those celebrity chefs people love and some of the food community takes for granted … are educating the public on the politics of food. People might roll their eyes at spending so much on an heirloom tomato, but the fact [that] they have an opinion on an heirloom tomato can only be a good thing.”

Indeed, the more we think about food, the more aware we are of what we’re eating. It’s no coincidence that the boom in food media comes when obesity in America is at an all-time high and Americans are realizing their bad eating habits are shortening life expectancies.

But the expansion also suggests that a bust is on its way. The sheer number of choices is overwhelming, which may be why there’s been some slippage in the TV landscape: Food Network’s Nielsen rating slipped 4 percent year-over-year, Top Chef’s most recent season premiere drew 1.66 million viewers, down more than 1 million from the series’ highwater mark of season five, and Every Day with Rachel Ray magazine lost 14 percent in ad revenue from last year, according to the MPA, Association of Magazine Media. And critics say the glut of reality-show competitions associated with cuisine has cheapened the culinary landscape. The field is becoming so crowded, goes the argument, that food media is being pushed to absurd extremes.

More likely, however, these slips are not indicative of the larger picture. Not only has consumer interest in food translated into increasing gourmand tastes, food is also a leveler of class, as Pollan has noted: “If Julia [Child] took the fear out of cooking, these shows take the fear—the social anxiety—out of ordering in restaurants. … Then, at the judges’ table [in shows like Top Chef], we learn how to taste and how to talk about food.”

“Being a chef or tasting good food doesn’t mean eating at a fancy French restaurant with 17 knives and forks and 15 wineglasses anymore,” adds Gail Simmons, Top Chef judge and special projects manager for Food & Wine. “Anyone can eat well if you learn tricks of the trade. Now when I’m out at dinner, I overhear strangers at another table discussing the acidity of a dish.”

And larger societal trends may continue to drive America’s fascination with food and the media that surrounds it. “The smaller the world becomes, the more similar it becomes,” says Bon Appétit’s Knowlton. “But as much as there is a Starbucks on every corner, food is one of the few things left that defines who we are. It gives us insight into a culture.

And that’s not going away. In fact, we’ll all probably have to work harder to keep up with it.”