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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

What Has Happened to Food Network?

It's fairly common knowledge that a knife becomes dull with overuse. Any kitchen pro will tell you that when this happens, you either have to have the knife sharpened or replaced.

The Scripps Network folks need to look into sharpening or replacing a few dull knives in the programming offices at Food Network.

Recent stats reveal that the network's ratings are down over last year's numbers. Of course, going into head-to-head competition with yourself by launching an entirely separate network – Cooking Channel – to do exactly the same thing you're doing might have something to do with that, I don't know. But I think the larger problem is twofold: Food Network is losing its creative touch and it is losing touch with its audience.

To illustrate the former point, may I serve up “Restaurant: Impossible?”

I like Robert Irvine. At least I like the guy I see on TV. A lot of people still give him the stink eye because of his little “resume enhancing” incident a couple of years ago and there are some folks around the St. Petersburg, Florida area who remain less than impressed by him. But overall, I like what he does on television.

When he was dismissed from his duties on Food Network's “Dinner: Impossible” as a result of the said “resume enhancing” and the producers cooked up a replacement recipe that featured Michael Symon as the main ingredient, it was an unmitigated disaster. The network figured that out fairly quickly and waved an olive branch in Irvine's direction. All was forgiven and forgotten and the embarrassed chef actually began to have a larger presence on the network than he had had before. Besides being restored to “Dinner: Impossible,” Irvine made appearances on “Best Thing I Ever Ate” and “Iron Chef America,” and was given the co-host slot on “Worst Cooks in America.”

And now he has a new primary home as the man in charge of rebuilding struggling eateries on “Restaurant: Impossible.” There's only one small problem with the new assignment: fellow British super-chef Gordon Ramsay has already been there and done that.

C'mon, now! Did the program developers at Food Network think maybe nobody would notice that their “new” show was a complete and direct rip-off of Ramsay's foreign and domestic “Kitchen Nightmares” programs? The only difference is that Robert is not the screaming, in-your-face potty-mouth that Gordon can be. And, sad to say, that's one reason why his show suffers by comparison. Most people like to watch Ramsay chew people up and spit them out. “Count the bleeps” is kind of a fun game to play. When likened to Ramsay's animatedly profane passion, Irvine's personality comes across as rather dull and bland. Oh, he shouts a bit now and then, but....

The formats are identical. First, you find a struggling restaurant with an inept owner. Then you sweep into town and establish an impossible deadline to turn things around. Trash the food, trash the d├ęcor, and beat up on the owner for being a loser. Piss off as many people and deflate as many egos as possible. Then bring in a design team to modernize the place while you step into the kitchen and make over the bloated, outdated menu. On “Kitchen: Impossible,” Robert follows so closely in Gordon Ramsay's footsteps that he even employs the same tricks and tactics to get people to come into the place he's overhauling; free food on the streets, inviting the mayor for dinner, busing in customers, etc. Blah, blah, blah.

I don't lay the blame at Robert's feet. He's playing the cards his bosses dealt him, but I don't think some of the programmers at Food Network are playing with a full deck anymore.

Not that Food Network has developed a habit of being derivative, mind you. I'm sure that any similarities between the original Japanese “Iron Chef” and the network's “Iron Chef America” are purely coincidental. And how could anybody even think that there was any resemblance between Travel Channel's “Food Wars” and FN's “Food Feuds?”

Obviously, among Food Network's programming execs there are some major believers in the old axiom about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. But then, what form of entertainment isn't derivative these days?

Which segues neatly to the next point: do Food Network viewers want more entertainment or more information? In reading a recent online article about the network's ratings decline, I paged through the reader's comments accompanying the piece and found an incontrovertible thread among the rank and file: enough with the banal competitions and silly “reality” shows. Give us some shows about food and cooking. You know, as in “FOOD” Network and “COOKING Channel?”

The first red flag went up about a year ago when the guy at the helm of the nascent “Cooking Channel” made the patently ridiculous and outrageously uninformed statement that people don't watch TV to learn how to cook. Then why are you going on the air, dork? I commented at the time that millions of people were apparently motivated to watch Julia Child for all those years because she was such an obviously hot mama.

No, people watch food shows and cooking shows on TV so they can learn about food and cooking. “Dump and stir shows.” That's what Mario Batali call's 'em. Dump and stir shows. The programs that featured young up and comers like Batali and Bobby Flay essentially doling out a free culinary school education to either eager foodies who wanted to up their skill levels or to beginners yearning to be free of canned, packaged, or frozen dinners.

These were the stalwarts of the network back in its TV Food Network days. Back before its programmers decided that a steady diet of “Cupcake Wars” – somebody please send the annoying Justin “Kredible” Willman back to “Hubworld” where his puerile personality belongs, – “Food Feuds” – another faltering, sputtering vehicle for Pig Iron Chef Michael Symon, or seemingly endless repeats of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” hosted by the most overexposed man on television, the ubiquitous Guy Fieri.

Okay, daytimes on FN are still refulgent with actual “cooking shows,” but unless you are a no-life food blogger like me or have a really overworked DVR, you never get to watch them. Anybody settling in after dinner and the six o'clock news gets endless repeats of commonplace drivel. Not to say that there aren't a few bulls in the herd, but, as with any cow pasture, you have to really be careful where you step in order to find them. Check out the current lineup and you'll find the same six shows airing six times a night, six nights a week. Six must be the network's favorite number, because they only seem to produce six new episodes of any given show at a time and then they air them six hundred times. I mean, I used to enjoy Guy Fieri until his bosses started cramming back-to-back-to-back episodes of “Triple D” down my throat nearly every night of the week. Come on! I love Bobby Flay, but does he really have to “Throwdown” twelve times a week? “Good Eats?” Good show. But a little stale after a hundred viewings of the same episode. And the nightly re-re-reruns of Marc Summers' show are about to make me come “Unwrapped.”

And the “new” “Cooking Channel” has been nothing more than an opportunity for a bunch of Canadian and British food celebrities to crack the American market along with being a forum for offensively outrageous shows like "Bitchin' Kitchen" and "Food Jammers," showcasing what the unfortunate culinary future may hold.

Scripps is starting to feel the pinch. They are finding themselves embarrassingly short on change when the check comes to the table. Once upon a time, their only competition came from underfunded and poorly produced PBS shows. But no more. TLC's “Cake Boss” aced Food Network's “Ace of Cakes” because Buddy Valastro stays busy making cakes while Duff Goldman stays busy making an idiot of himself. Bravo's “Top Chef” generates a lot more buzz than almost anything Food Network has to offer. “Master Chef” puts up big numbers for Fox. Even SyFy is getting into the game with its new “Marcel's Quantum Kitchen,” hosted by “Top Chef” wannabe Marcel Vigneron. And don't count Martha Stewart out yet. The domestic diva's back in the kitchen with “Martha Bakes” on Hallmark Channel.

Get with it, Scripps. Dance with the one that brung ya! Listen to the people who got you to the top. Less competition and more content. More shows about real food and less “reality” food shows. Stop churning out Food Network “stars” and go back to focusing on people who turn out stellar food. Put a moratorium on mediocrity and the mundane and dare to do something that's not derivative. You're no longer a king among peasants. Some of the knaves have knives and they're not afraid to use them.

Honestly, Food Network, isn't it time to really get cooking again?

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