The Cooking Channel Finds Traction in the Marketplace

Presentation is everything

During this year’s advance buying season, clients and agencies are finally getting to sample the Cooking Channel’s ratings and buy guaranteed inventory after two-and-a-half years in the oven. And owner Scripps Networks Interactive is trying to get advertisers used to the idea of Cooking as a meal all by itself, rather than a side dish to Food Network, a top-20 channel.

“We are in a place of deep development on Cooking,” said Karen Grinthal, svp of ad sales for Food Network and Cooking. “We’ve got enough episodes of successful series that we’re able to stack in our programming schedule. In the first couple of years of a new network, you don’t have enough programming to do that when you’re scheduling.” (Cooking ran very old Julia Child shows for quite a while during its first years on the air; now it has originals like Extra Virgin and My Grandmother’s Ravioli with Mo Rocca during prime time.)

Ratings are low­—an average of 46,000 25-54 viewers in prime and 31,000 in total day in July—but that’s not too surprising for a rebranded niche network (Cooking replaced Scripps’ Fine Living in 2010). What is surprising is that SNI is selling the network separately from Food, using different representatives and tactics. For siblings HGTV and its niche net DIY, the same reps sell both networks.

Smaller advertisers are happy about this. “[The rate for Food] comes in too high for our niche target,” said one TV buyer. “Scripps is more interested in using Cooking as a launching vehicle [for clients who are just entering a market]. They’re definitely pushing the channel. We don’t ever get that for Food … Cooking has a lower cost of entry.” Scripps, said the buyer, “will play ball” where other networks won’t, negotiating around client needs rather than demanding an across-the-board CPM increase. Given Cooking’s ratings, it doesn’t have much of a choice but to be flexible. In its first year in the marketplace, Cooking got traction mostly with direct response advertisers and package deals with Food—since as a rule clients refuse to buy networks without a third-party ratings guarantee.

Now that the guarantee is there, Scripps is waging the next important battle: wider distribution (the channel is in 59 million households as of July). It’s a surefire way to improve ratings. And the most effective way to secure better distribution is to add a lot of new programming like the aforementioned Extra Virgin.

Cooking’s numbers tell a positive story. SNL Kagan reports the net’s free cash flow for this year is projected at $30.6 million—a lot of gravy off a 7-cent sub fee and ad revenue of $46.6 million. That’s not even 10 percent of Food’s estimated ad revenue haul ($652.5 million) and an even smaller remainder of its free cash flow (an impressive $487 million). But to many, Food’s success is evidence Cooking can work. The larger network still hasn’t hit a ceiling in terms of demand. To boot, it’s garnering prime-time Emmy noms for shows like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

“They don’t overpromise and underdeliver, which a lot of networks do,” said the buyer. Grinthal wouldn’t detail how well that strategy worked this year. “We had a healthy upfront that met our expectations” was all she would say.