TV'S UPFRONT: TV FOOD NETWORK'S SALAD DAYS COMING: CABLE TV OUTLOOK: CELEB CHEF HELPS CHANNEL COOK UP GROWTH

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Leave it to cable tv to find its next TV sex symbol on TV Food Network.

Now reaching about 22 million households with women making up more than half of the audience, TVFN has developed a bona fide female audience draw with Emeril Lagasse, the Portuguese-descended chef who has become a national celebrity.

"We look for great personalities who make great TV," says Erica Gruen, TVFN president and a former media executive at New York shops Merkley Newman Harty and Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising. "Our theory is that people watch television that's fun-because they're entertained by watching great personalities, whether it be Johnny Carson or Julia Child."

MALE VIEWERS ALSO

Besides a loyal female following, TVFN is also pulling in its share of male viewers.

"Forty-five percent of our prime-time audience is men 18 to 49 years old, which is not what a lot of people would think about when they think of the network," Ms. Gruen says.

Ms. Gruen says TVFN plans to draw an even larger audience demographic by adding more entertaining programs with higher production values.

"It's being repositioned from the network that used to be for people who like to cook to the one for anybody who likes to eat," she says.

TVFN programming is about 95% original and 100% original in prime time. The network will produce roughly 2,000 original show hours this year.

"We're producing our own programming and fulfilling the original promise of cable television," Ms. Gruen says.

In addition to its current "Essence of Emeril," TVFN next fall will add "Emeril Live," which will have production values closer to NBC's "Tonight Show" than a Julia Child cooking lesson. Besides host Mr. Lagasse, the show will feature a live audience, band, celebrity guests and opening monologue.

STEADY SUBSCRIBER GROWTH

TVFN's star approach so far has yielded steady subscriber growth. Last year viewership increased 40% in prime time compared with 8.4% growth in the cable industry's overall viewership. The network's Nielsen Media Research daypart rating climbed to 0.3 from 0.2 in the first quarter of 1997.

TVFN added roughly 4.5 million subscribers last year, including a 500,000 subscriber Time Warner system in Orlando, Fla., and a 400,000 subscriber Comcast system in Detroit. The network gets another 3.8 million subscribers when added by direct broadcast satellite operators DirecTV and PrimeStar this month.

TVFN has set ambitious subscriber goals, aiming to reach 50 mil-lion subscribers by 2000 with approximately 25% coming from DBS.

FIVE NEW DAILIES

Next fall TVFN will add five new daily shows, which include "Mediterranean Mario," "Home Entertaining with Dean Fearing," "Tamales On Tour," "Michael's Place" and "Ready Set Cook!"

TVFN's three new weekly shows include "Two Fat Ladies," which follows the cooking escapades of two portly British women in search of exotic recipes while traveling via motorcycle across Europe.

While Ms. Gruen says TVFN's ad revenue doubled in 1996, the network won't enjoy a dual revenue stream of advertising and subscription fees until 2003 when its 10-year free licensing agreement with cable operators runs out.

Mr. McConville is cable editor for Electronic Media.

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