Much like one who tires of eating broiled chicken for dinner too many Friday nights, Food Network has lately felt the need to mix things up a bit. The big question: Would a tweaked recipe bring more revenue and prime viewers to the table?
The network began asking the question last July in the wake of sagging ratings for its anchor show Emeril Live, which it then moved from 8 p.m. to 7 p.m. When the network ceased production of new episodes as of Dec. 11, the move led some to question whether Food could continue reaching the masses by relying on newly built stars.
But by making this transition, Food has become more palatable to viewers and advertisers alike. In addition to retaining some established stars and marketing new ones, the network has continued to develop non-instructional reality shows for prime. Now Food is adding new advertisers to its already-loyal partners. A subsequent increase in revenue, paired with an investment in consumer products lines and online partnerships, like a recent Food store powered by Cooking.com, point to healthy profits.
With renewed commitments from fan favorites Rachael Ray and Alton Brown, Food's talent pool—including tattoo-plastered, spiky-haired Guy Fieri and ice hockey player/model-cum TV chef Danny Boome—skews younger, and the network has broken new advertiser categories such as electronics. In January 2008, its median age in prime was 45.6; in 2003, it was 50.3, according to Nielsen.
The addition of more reality fare, like the Fieri/Marc Summers-hosted Ultimate Recipe Showdown at night, has allowed for brand integrations that weren't possible previously. (The Scripps-owned network, to some advertisers' chagrin, remains continually steadfast in not showing product branding labels in its instructional cooking shows.)
“New talent is part of what makes the network exciting,” says General Manager Sergei Kuharsky. A former marketer for Johnson & Johnson, Kuharsky has helped spearhead an expanding line of Food Network products at Kohl's, the partnership with Cooking.com and cookbook deals for new talent like Ellie Krieger. “Emeril had an incredible run like Friends, Frasier and Seinfeld. We celebrate that success—and we look forward to the new.”
The network is projected to grow ad revenue by 7.4% in 2008 and 9.4% in 2009 to $446 million, according to SNL Kagan research. Operating revenue is projected to grow 8.1% in 2008 and 9.4% in 2009 to $567.6 million. While the network's total day viewing dipped 5% in 2007 to an average 556,000 total viewers, it was up 3% in prime to 799,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Food plans to premiere one new show a month for the next year, its most ambitious slate ever. In January, it debuted Ray's new travel series Rachael's Vacation, and Jamie At Home, a daytime cooking series that saw the return of Naked Chef Jamie Oliver to the network.
This month brings Ultimate Recipe Showdown and Down Home with the Neelys, in which an African-American couple of restaurateurs cook BBQ comfort food. The latter premiered as the network's most-watched series in the five years of its In the Kitchen weekend block, with some 2 million viewers. March's entrant is Rescue Chef, a daytime weekend show in which Boome helps regular cooks solve their culinary dilemmas.
Heading into this season's upfront, the network is pitching advertisers on the benefits of hooking up with new talent as they rise. It has signed deals for two of its stars with major brand names, although at presstime could not say on the record which brands. And it has been finding new ways to blend product integrations into primetime reality shows—the winner of Ultimate Recipe Showdown, for instance, gets their recipe on the menu of TGI Fridays, along with $25,000.
“We're in the world everyone else is in, trying to understand the best way to keep the editorial voice clean, while also in a fun way incorporating advertisers and brands when it fits with the show,” says Karen Grinthal, Food's senior VP of ad sales.
Media buyers are responding kindly, many saying that the cutting back of Lagasse—who maintains a development deal with Food, and will continue to produce new episodes of Essence of Emeril through 2008—perhaps improved the network's standing with some clients.
“[The network has] grown to the point where they're bigger than some of their talent,” says Bill Holba, who works with packaged good products as VP/associate director of national broadcast for Initiative. “And they've got a corner in the market that no one's taking away at this point.”
“Food Network has done a good job at seeking out and developing talent,” says Dave Kornett, senior VP of national broadcast at PHD. “I would have every confidence they'll be able to replace talent that's leaving with a more younger and current feel.”