Diane Haithman is a contributor to Deadline Hollywood
Could this year’s Emmy Reality and Reality-Competition categories turn into a food fight?
Perhaps more important: Should there be a law preventing a chef from wrapping zucchini around a toasted marshmallow, creating the S’More from hell (observed in a recent installment of Chopped)?
The stage — or should we say table — has been set. In 2010, Bravo’s Top Chef knocked The Amazing Race off its 7-year pedestal by taking home the Emmy for best Reality-Competition program (Race came back for another two wins before being unseated by The Voice in 2013). “I believe it was the first prominent, prime time food show to win the category,” says Primetime Emmy Award chair Bob Boden.
2010 also marked The Year of Food for Reality Programming, with ABC’s Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution eating up the competition to win that category. And last year, the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives numbered among the reality programming nominees. This year, as the reality category divides into structured and unstructured program, Diners will fall into the structured category.
Food programmers are pushing hard for a repeat of 2010’s foodie success in 2014. The prime time mix as expected includes 2010’s Top Chef and Diners. Food Network will also be pushing Chopped, on the air since 2009. And A&E is bringing a new show to the game: Wahlburgers, from 44 Blue Productions, featuring actor brothers Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, tracking their story as they return to Boston to join forces with brother Paul in a hamburger restaurant.
Jerry Leo executive v.p . of program strategy and acquisitions at Bravo and Oxygen Media, believes that veteran Top Chef still has the potential to chop its way through the clutter at Emmy time. “It’s our signature show,” he says. “It’s very important to Bravo. It’s a very highly-desired sponsor show. We try to be broad as well as make sure that the food fan is not bored. We’ve had chefs jumping out of planes”.
Whether or not these programs get Emmy love in 2014, experts agree that the food genre is exploding on both network and cable. Boden believes the food programming frenzy is more than a niche cable phenomenon. He offers a partial list: “On broadcast you’ve got Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, Masterchef, Masterchef Junior (Fox)/ You’ve had The Taste (ABC) for the last few seasons, there was the American Baking Competition (CBS). The food genre is not just for cable at all, it’s definitely worked its way into the mainstream”.
Daytime food programming has long had its own Emmy category, Outstanding Culinary Program. Food Network is adding 35 new daytime food shows for 2014-15, including The Valerie Bertinelli Project slated for September and another Chopped incarnation, the Chopped Teen Tournament. And certainly daytime has long been the sweet spot for cooking shows. Daytime celebri-chefs of the ‘60s and ‘70s included PBS’ Julia Child and the syndicated Galloping Gourmet, awash in fine wine and clarified butter.
These stars who launched into TV in the 1960s paved the way for PBS’ Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray in syndication and on various Food Network shows.
“I call them chop-and-chat shows,” says Beth Hoppe chief programming executive and General Manager, General Audience Programming at PBS.
The new wave of food shows explodes the chop-and-chat cooking format, says Boden. “I think the food genre has now expanded and blossomed into things other than cooking,” he observes. “What are the personalities of the chefs, the preparers? There are many shows about life in a restaurant. It’s way more than recipes now”.
Food Network president Brooke Johnson says the growth of the network represent the happy accident of a single-subject cable outlet meeting with a worldwide trend. “There is an increased availability of ingredients . . .restaurants as entertainment,” she says.
Comfort food is hot, but so is the more exotic, adds Johnson. “Fusion cooking has been around for awhile, but it continues to grow, where it’s going to be a little Hispanic, a little Asian, a little Norwegian,” she says. “A lot of this stuff comes out of the improvement of transportation of ingredients all around the globe”.
The expansion of the genre also means more contenders in all reality categories in future Emmy competitions, says PBS executive Hoppe. But she adds the food frenzy on other channels has a silver lining for public broadcasting.
“As cable grew, there were some kind of competitive years. But now as cable kind of abandons those genres for the more instant gratification entertainment, the quality space in those genres, in food and in history and in science, is open to us again,” she says.
In September, PBS is introducing A Chef’s Life, which it calls “a character driven documentary series” about chef Vivian Howard. Johnson believes Chef’s Life will cater to curiosity, not instant gratification. “It’s not Chopped,” she says.
While Emmy wins can’t be predicted, when it comes to TV audiences’ favorite dish, the Food Network says its easy to name the hands-down winner: macaroni and cheese.
“We have a big giant website, 35 to 40 million uniques a month on our three food sites, so we get a lot of research from the usage on those sites,” says Food Network’s Johnson. “It’s very helpful to us in our television business.