At the recent screening of the Food Network's new 22-part travel series, "A Cook's Tour," chef/author and grudging TV personality Anthony Bourdain stood uneasily in a suit that he admitted he'd just purchased. His more typical uniform, well-worn T-shirts chopped muscle-style, was likely deemed inappropriate for a gala at Manhattan's Bryant Park Hotel. The capitulation seemed out-of-character for the rising star, who typically exhibits a fierce reluctance to the whitewashing of his colorful image.
"Being on TV is like an alien abduction," says Bourdain, author of the best-selling "Kitchen Confidential," revealing his ambivalence about TV stardom. Unlike Food Network uber-host Emeril Lagasse, "Tony" is not the type to don a chef's apron and yuck it up with a studio audience. And that difference is intentional.
The growing network chose the new program as part of its efforts to expand into a broader range of content and grow its audience beyond baby-boomer women. The show, where Bourdain can be found on virility-seeking quests to find foods that serve as a natural Viagra , exemplifies the more edgy, entertainment-driven programs on the Scripps-owned network. Many Food Network programs now move beyond kitchen instructional. A new program block in the Monday-through-Thursday 10-to-11 p.m. time slot dubbed "Taste the Adventure" marks the evolution.
"Food has been seen on TV in a limited fashion: Someone stood in a kitchen and prepared recipes," says Eileen Opatut, senior VP-programming and production for the Food Network. "Those shows will always have a home on the channel, but ... we want to create programs that reflect the way people in general relate to food."
The huge success of the Iron Chef, a Japanese import that pits chef against chef against the backdrop of what Food Network ad sales chief Karen Grinthal calls "Woody Allen-style dubbing," helped alert the network to the potential of tapping into a younger, more male-skewing audience. "We were able to get appointment viewing from a totally different group than our core [women 25-to-49], and now it's one of our highest-rated shows," Grinthal says.
the young set
Hip English import Jamie Oliver has similarly helped bring in the younger set with the fast-paced MTV-style attitude of "The Naked Chef." The popular Oliver will appear in a new half-hour series, "Jamie Oliver's London," in May that depicts an insider's view of London life.
Bringing in new viewers with expanded programming parameters has been one part of the Food Network's success. In 2001, the network's distribution grew 31% to 71.5 million, bringing it close to the 80 million total U.S. cable households. Prime-time ratings in the fourth quarter increased 26%, and with the distribution growth, advertisers saw a rise in viewership of 63%, says Grinthal. Viewership of the 18-to-49 set grew 61%, she adds.
The younger and increasingly dual-gender audience has helped diversify the net's advertiser base beyond what was almost exclusively package-goods companies. Now, packaged goods make up less than half of the ad dollar haul, which resembles a more general-interest network with sponsors from categories including automotive, finance and travel.
Even with a nod toward the underground, Food Network execs are wary of advertisers having to reconsider their buys. While Bourdain's language may often need to be bleeped, and viewers' gaze need averting when he swallows a still-beating Cobra heart, Brad Pitt's rumored portrayal of him in the movie version of his book is testament to his mass appeal. Sorry, Tony, but it's true. You're big.