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Saturday, July 23, 2011

the rise and fall of the Food Network

Cooking has been a popular genre of television from the beginning. My teenage favorite was Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet. It ran from 1969 to 1971 and, although produced in Canada, was carried on a woeful UHF station in my home town. WKAB didn't even try to stage a nightly newscast, so they needed something to fill the timeslot before Dick Cavett Monday through Friday. My mother and I were loyal Cavett fans, and we would watch the Galloping Gourmet beforehand. Kerr was cosmopolitan, hilarious, and a sly master of the double entendre. Also, his cuisine was definitely not what the local Morrison's Cafeteria served.

Over the years I watched many cooking shows on PBS, from the classic ones like Julia Child and Jacques Pepin to regional ones like Justin Wilson and Earl Peyroux (superb). At some point -- and I don't remember exactly when -- the Food Network entered the picture. It popularized some excellent on-air talent such as Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis, and Alton Brown, although I preferred two other chefs (Mario Batali and Michael Chiarello) who got less acclaim.

It's difficult to stay on top in the television business for a long time, though, and Food Network has become downright boring. Lagasse overdid his gig, but Ray -- who either is shrewd or has a good career manager -- saw the fall-off coming and moved on. The second wave of on-air talent does not measure up to the first.

But this is not simply about talent. There's a handy phrase called "jumping the shark" that applies to the Food Network. Cloning the Japanese Iron Chef series was the first step in that direction. How much cake decoration or cupcake baking can anyone watch? How many new chef competitions? The leadership of the network appears simply to have run out of ideas.

Cable networks can be bought and sold; it's a valuable asset to be be carried on a low channel by the majority of cable systems across the country. Most recently Oprah Winfrey acquired the Discovery Health Channel and reprogrammed it as OWN (a failure, so far). Another example is Viacom's acquiring The Nashville Network and reprogramming it as Spike. I'm not predicting that Food Network will go that route, but don't be surprised if it does.