Turns out the Food Network didn't need to ride the coattails of star chef Emeril Lagasse to build a following. Food stepped out of the kitchen two years ago, mixing how-to shows with prime time entertainment, and ratings are solidly on the rise.
"When we introduced Good Eats
and Iron Chef, we said, 'Kiss our core viewers goodbye,' but they stayed," network President Judy Girard said of two popular prime time series. "Two or three years ago, Emeril was our tent pole. Now we have many shows in prime that can do the ratings Emeril does."
Girard started mixing new ingredients about two years ago, when pop-culture food shows began replacing many of the network's cooking shows in prime time. Most of the instructionals were moved to other dayparts, such as early fringe and Saturday mornings.
The new recipe is a hit. Prime time ratings are up 50% from last year, to 0.6 in the first quarter. "People are realizing that Food TV is broader in scope than they had imagined," says Senior VP of Programming Eileen Opatut.
Once, you could find Emeril there whenever you turned the net on. Now, Essence of Emeril
and Emeril Live
air just three times per day, regularly drawing about 500,000 viewers each.
Prime time favorites like Unwrapped, telling stories behind popular foods, and quirky Japanese import Iron Chef
have joined Emeril among the highest-rated shows, Girard says. (Food does not release individual-show ratings.)
The network's rating growth comes as distribution swells to 73 million. Food has picked up 17 million new subscribers since April 2000, second in growth only to WE: Women's Entertainment, which added 20 million.
Operators say many subscribers hanker for popular niche nets like Scripps-owned Food.
"When capacity becomes available, we ask local managers what customers are asking for, and Food Network gets a lot of play," said John Kauzlarich, of MSO Northland Communications. The distribution growth has piqued media buyers' interest. "You can focus a buy-in very well with niches that have grown to major size like Food Network," said Horizon Media Executive VP Aaron Cohen.
This year, Food's increasing its programming budget 39%, launching 10 series and 65 specials, including food/lifestyle series Oliver's Twist, hosted by British cooking celeb Jamie Oliver, author of bestseller The Naked Chef
and host of a recently concluded BBC series.
A scripted drama can cost more than $1 million per episode; Food's originals—many done in-studio—run a modest $40,000 to $70,000 per half-hour, so Food can stretch its budget further than pure-entertainment programmers.
Girard wants to stretch Food creatively. Keeping one formula is a sure way to "lose your scrapper instinct," she says. Future projects may include an animated series or a show pairing food with music. But Opatut cautions that Food won't get too nouvelle: "We wouldn't do food fights or food wrestling."