Food Rules

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

Illustration: Bill Garland; Photos: Alfred Maskeroni


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.”

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