Monday, December 17, 2007
Food Network notes from Sunday's NY Times
You can find chef Emeril Lagasse’s name and face all over a dozen cookbooks, 10 restaurants, lines of pots and pans, knives, Wedgwood dishes, spices, salad dressings and pasta sauces, and even a deep fryer.
But as of last week, it will no longer be found on new episodes of his signature “Emeril Live” show on the Food Network. The program taped its last installments and laid off a half-dozen staff members, bringing an end to an impressive 11-year, every-weeknight run.
Viewers will not see a difference for at least a year as the new episodes that have already been taped are shown. But industry executives are scratching their heads over why the network canceled “Emeril Live” — which they speculate became too expensive for its softening ratings — without having a new deal in place, given the role that his program played in the network’s success.
Food Network executives assert that Mr. Lagasse, who declined to comment, remains a valued member of the family. “All good things come to an end, and it was time to do something new,” said Brooke Johnson, the network’s president. “Right now, we’re figuring out what that something new is,” she said, noting that Mr. Lagasse’s “Essence of Emeril” on the network remains in production.
The cancellation of “Emeril Live” comes at a time when the Food Network is undergoing a transformation. Having taken food and chefs from what was once the domain of low-key public television to new celebrity heights, the network finds itself trying to retain the considerable revenue generated by what has become big business, even as it faces competition from all sides.
Executives at the Food Network and its parent, E. W. Scripps, paint a rosy picture of the network’s prime-time ratings. They say its average 2007 prime-time audience of 778,000 viewers is its highest ever and it has had success attracting the younger audiences that advertisers find especially attractive.
But the network’s total day ratings have dipped to an average of 544,000 people from 580,000 a year ago. More significant, its signature weekend block of instructional programs, known collectively as “In the Kitchen,” has lost 15 percent of its audience in the last year, to 830,000 viewers on average. This has left the network owing refunds, known as “make goods,” to advertisers, Ms. Johnson confirmed.
Bob Tuschman, Food Network’s senior vice president for programming and production, said the weekend ratings drop was “nothing we haven’t anticipated.” He said the network’s ratings in that time period grew by double digits in each of the last four years, growth that could not be sustained.
But the slowdown comes at an awkward time for Scripps: in October, the company announced that it would split in two, with the Food Network and HGTV anchoring the planned Scripps Networks Interactive. Scripps’s shares closed at $43.66 on Friday, down more than 18 percent from their 52-week high in January.
Slumping ratings are not the only obstacle facing the network. While the Food Network has been good at creating stars like Mr. Lagasse, Rachael Ray and Paula Deen and giving national exposure to chefs like Bobby Flay and Mario Batali, until recently it has not shared in their success beyond the network. A spokeswoman for the network said it had no stake in Mr. Lagasse’s considerable outside merchandising, for example.
About a year ago, the Food Network began aggressively trying to change that with new deals that were “way more onerous” from the stars’ point of view, said a person who has been affected by the changing strategy, by insisting on a stake in book deals and licensing ventures, and control over outside activities.
Ms. Johnson, the Food Network president, declined to discuss contracts, but noted that as the network has changed in its own mind from a television network to a brand, it has decided that “we like to be in partnership with our talent in a variety of venues.” She added, “To my knowledge, the talent is happy with the deals we have with them.”
Indeed, in the spring, Food Network plans to introduce its first celebrity chef branded product line, from Bobby Flay at the retailer Kohl’s, which in September introduced a line of several hundred Food Network branded products.
And last week, one of its biggest stars, Ms. Ray, renewed her Food Network contract, which was to expire at the end of the year. Ms. Ray got her start on the network in 2001, with “30 Minute Meals.” Last year, she went on to a daytime syndicated talk show, which Scripps partly owns.
The new Food Network deal, to be announced Monday, calls for her to make 13 episodes of a new prime-time travel show, called “Rachael’s Vacation.” But she will cut back on “30 Minute Meals,” to 60 new episodes a year from 80.
Jon Rosen, senior vice president at the William Morris Agency, who represents Ms. Ray, said the cutback will “make her happier and well-rested and enable her to take a breath and concentrate on her total brand a little more.” He said that because Ms. Ray got her start at the Food Network, “we very much wanted to continue that relationship.”
Food Network’s new interest in taking a broader stake in stars’ outside activities, Mr. Rosen said, “is somewhat understandable,” and it can be beneficial to some stars, but “in other cases, it might not work.”
The Rachael Ray deal is vital to the Food Network, which faces increasing competition from many directions. “There’s all sorts of instructional cooking video on the Web,” noted Erica Gruen, a cable consultant, who, when she was chief executive at the Food Network, created “Emeril Live.”
Elsewhere on television, Fox Broadcasting has the reality shows “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Kitchen Nightmares” with the foul-mouthed British chef Gordon Ramsay. Chef Daniel Boulud appears on the Mojo network. Anthony Bourdain, who started his TV career at the Food Network, is a star on the Travel Channel.
“It’s not surprising that people move on,” said Derek Baine, senior analyst at the media research firm SNL Kagan, “They pay almost nothing for the people as they are building their careers,” he said. “That’s been their strategy all along.”
Food Network does not even have the bragging rights these days to the top-rated food-related show on cable. That would be Bravo, whose “Top Chef” competition drew an average 2.6 million viewers an episode in its recent third outing, compared with the 2.4 million who tuned in to the third round of a similar cook-off show, “The Next Food Network Star.” (Those ratings are for original broadcasts and digital video recorder playbacks within seven days. Food Network executives said their show, which is the network’s highest-rated program ever, wins when only original broadcasts are included.)
Ms. Johnson called “Top Chef” a copy of “The Next Food Network Star,” but “without the care about the food content, which we bring to everything we do.”
Frances Berwick, Bravo’s executive vice president of programming and production, said the point of “Top Chef” was to help contestants open restaurants, as two have done, "not to become television personalities."
The network’s programming strategy, meanwhile, has also undergone changes, often broadening from its emphasis on the food itself. Mr. Batali‘s Italian cooking show “Molto Mario” was once a constant presence in the daytime lineup, but new episodes ended in 2004. His new series — a food tour of Spain with Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Bittman, a food columnist for The New York Times, and the Spanish actress Claudia Bassols — will instead appear in the fall in prime time on public television.
Mr. Tuschman of the Food Network said it had passed on that series. “It was not the right fit for us.”
Mr. Batali, who still participates in the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” competition, said the show had not been offered to the Food Network.
He said the network recently proposed a couple of new projects for him, including one where he would be host of a reality show, and that he would discuss them with the executives in January. “I’m not averse to working with them,” he said.
Still, Mr. Batali said, “They don’t need me. They have decided they are mass market and they are going after the Wal-Mart crowd,” which he said was “a smart business decision. So they don’t need someone who uses polysyllabic words from other languages.”
Ms. Johnson disputed that assertion, but Food Network executives said the network has successfully broadened its programming in recent years, with shows like the extreme cake-building reality series “Ace of Cakes” and “Dinner: Impossible,” featuring a chef, Robert Irvine, in extreme cooking challenges.
In February, the network will introduce “Ultimate Recipe Showdown,” a competition for home cooks, Mr. Tuschman said. The network’s sagging weekend lineup will get three new programs early next year, featuring the British chefs Jamie Oliver and Danny Boome, and the Memphis barbecue restaurateurs Gina and Pat Neely.
Mr. Baine, the cable analyst, said he expects the Food Network, like other cable networks, “to have a really good year” if the Writers Guild of America strike continues and broadcast networks have no original scripted programming. He said any ups and downs in ratings were unlikely to affect Scripps’s plan to split its company into two separately traded stocks.
“I think it’s a great move; there are very few stand-alone cable network stocks rights now,” he said. “It’s pretty solid, despite some ups and downs in the ratings.”