Emeril Lagasse, the Food Network's meal ticket and star of its flagship "Emeril Live," will no longer cook up a show exclusively on the growing cable network, at least for a short time. NBC will try to transform the charismatic chef-known for signature emphatic phrases "Bam!" and "Kick it up a notch!" as much as for his culinary creations-into a sitcom star with the launch of the eponymous "Emeril," the latest show-about-a-show on the small screen. The initial pilot was skewered by media critics and media buyers and appears headed to the TV compost heap, but NBC promises a new and improved version with less focus on Emeril's home life and more on the fictional show's behind-the-scenes intrigue.
Two months after the "Emeril" sitcom launches Sept. 18, UPN will air a takeoff of the "Iron Chef," another popular Food Network show where chefs are given a surprise ingredient such as swordfish and then battle it out to create the best-judged meal from it-a "Survivor" of the kitchen. UPN will run the Nov. 16 "Iron Chef USA: Showdown in Las Vegas" and a second special later as possible preludes to a one-hour weekly show next fall (UPN has until Jan. 1 to decide whether to do that).
The "Iron Chef," which has developed a cult following, is the Food Network's second-highest- rated show behind "Emeril Live," and receives much of its appeal from its campy feel and humorous English dubbing over the original Japanese. The UPN version will be Americanized and hosted by William Shatner. "It will combine the popularity of both reality TV and food," said Larry Thompson, the executive producer of the UPN show. "Americans have learned not only to eat, but to dine. And they have an interest in food as evidenced by the fact that there's a whole network broadcasting food shows 24/7."
AFFIRMING FOOD NETWORK SUCCESS
The prime-time exposure of both "Emeril" and the "Iron Chef" serves as further affirmation of the E.W. Scripps-owned Food Network as a cable success story, a source of pride for network executives. Other evidence: First-quarter household average viewership figures for "Emeril Live" are up 37% this year (230,000) over two years ago (168,000), while distribution has grown 130% to 64 million homes this month from 28 million in 1997.
The network has also become a proving ground for would-be household names; Mr. Lagasse and the "Iron Chef" are pop icons and brands unto themselves, while the "Naked Chef" and Bobby Flay may be next. Even longtime celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, first made famous for his Spago restaurant in West Hollywood, Calif., realized the power of a presence on the network and approached it about doing a show, which launched in January.
Yet there remains some uneasiness that the broadcast networks' initiatives could lead to too many cooks in the TV kitchen. The Food Network stands to gain viewers if either show becomes a hit, but it has no control over the content-or any financial interest-in either General Electric's NBC or Viacom's UPN shows. The various parties, including the producers of the NBC show, Linda Bloodworth and Harry Thomason, have had discussions about cross-promotions and working in concert with the Food Network but have yet to make much tangible progress. "When you're building a network that's so tightly defined as a brand you want to control everything about it and when the talent migrates or the format migrates, you lose control of that," said Food Network President Judy Girard.
Ms. Girard, who is mostly optimistic about the "Emeril" sitcom, does have one principal worry: the possibility that Mr. Lagasse's popular expressions "Bam!" and "Kick it up a notch!" become hackneyed and as overused as, say, NBC's "You are the weakest link, goodbye." For the most part, however, the Food Network has little to lose and lots to gain with the expansion of its franchises to broadcast networks, especially in the case of main course Emeril.
"If the show becomes a big hit, great, maybe it'll encourage people to check him out over on the Food Network," said Tim Brooks, senior VP-research at Lifetime, a competitor for the female viewer ages 18 to 49. "If it's a medium thing, it'll still serve as a big promotional vehicle because of the audience size that you get on a broadcast network. If it's a horrible failure, it's not going to hurt his cooking show. He's got his fans."
The sitcom was shopped by the producing tandem of Ms. Bloodworth and Mr. Thomason to various networks before Jeff Zucker, NBC's new entertainment president, took a bite. Mr. Zucker had competed against Mr. Lagasse's weekly cameo on ABC's "Good Morning America" when he was the executive producer of NBC's "Today." The NBC honcho has taken a risk with "Emeril," but not a huge one: He can't do worse in the Tuesday 8 p.m. time slot, where NBC finished last among the major networks last season as the high-profile "Michael Richards Show" bombed. "They saw something there that frankly I didn't see," said CBS President Leslie Moonves during the network upfront presentations in May about NBC's pickup of "Emeril."
NBC spokesman Curt King said Mr. Lagasse "has struck a chord with many, many viewers across the country, certainly on the Food Network, and we're very hopeful and confident that people will be interested in watching him in a TV sitcom."
Each upfront season, in part to angle for a better deal, the ad community seems to pick a high-profile show and begin writing an early obituary. This year, "Emeril" got the knife with predictions of a short life span. "I wouldn't want to run on the second commercial pod," said Jon Mandel, co-managing director of Grey Global Group's MediaCom, suggesting viewership may end after the first show's initial ad break. "It's horrible. When you watch the pilot it's like you feel embarrassed for him. He's too much of a caricature of himself and it's not a funny caricature. He should stick to cooking because acting he cannot do."
"It's a shame Emeril doesn't seem comfortable in front of the camera in that setting," said Chris Geraci, senior VP-national TV buying at Omnicom Group's OMD USA. "He's not nearly as comfortable as he is when he's on his own show." NBC, of course, hopes the new pilot has the recipe to quiet the naysayers.