Memo to Food Network: Your programming is going rancid
Worst Episode Ever
June 21, 2009
Senior Vice President, Programming and Production
The Food Network
Dear Mr. Tuschman:
May I call you “Bob?” I’m assuming I can because your network’s Web site hosts a blog for you called “Bob’s Blog,” so I’m going to take that as an invitation to speak with you on a first-name basis.
Because I know you’re more than just a judge on your network’s “The Next Food Network Star” show — you’re also presumably the top programming executive behind the creation of the show and the man responsible for most of what airs on the Food Network — I believe you are the right person to which an important and, sadly, unpalatable message must be delivered:
“The Next Food Network Star” sucks. It’s not entertaining. It has nothing to do with actual culinary skill. And it’s another troubling step in the ultimate devaluation of your network’s brand.
All of which is unfortunate enough, but it is made doubly so by the fact that I can simply change channels and watch Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” a cooking competition-reality show that also premiered this month and which, while it may have its faults, actually appeals to the foodie in me. Maybe because it’s actually about cooking food, not hissy fits and cascades of jittery, bitter tears.
I’m sorry to be so blunt, Bob, because I think you’ve done some great work in the past. Your official bio on The Food Network Web site notes that you “developed and executive-produced the top performing series 30 Minute Meals, Barefoot Contessa and Everyday Italian among others.”
Those are good shows, Bob — they’re the shows that first drew me to The Food Network at the start of this decade. It was your stars — Ina and Giada and Mario (man, I love Mario Batali — I used to go to the gym during the day and time my treadmill workouts to his show; one episode of “Molto Mario” plus the first five minutes of “Sara’s Secrets” was equal to three miles on the rubber belt) who showed me that real cooking with real ingredients wasn’t out of my bachelor reach; that it wasn’t a skill set open only to a select cadre of secret society denizens. Throw in Dave Lieberman (finally! a TV chef with a kitchen as small as mine), Jamie Oliver — and even some Rachael Ray, who I watched with the sound turned down — and you had me hooked on amping up my knife skills.
But the Food Network has lost its way, Bob. You let Anthony Bourdain go. You cancelled Mario’s show, and Sara’s, too. Yes, you’ve brought in new chefs, but you’ve relegated all the actual cooking shows to weekends and daytime, including the best ones with your most appealing personalities — celebrity chefs who started out as chefs and only later became celebrities.
Nowadays, prime time on the Food Network is all about competition shows and reality non-fiction programming — and it’s all about folks looking to make a name and buck. The food is just an afterthought for you, Bob, and it’s really starting to grate on me.
How many “Food Network Challenge” shows are you airing these days, Bob? Every time I turn on your channel, I see another group of dull-as-dishwater chefs laboring under a contrived set of circumstances to create the best eight-foot cake that looks like one of Roy Disney’s children or most resembles a Hasbro toy. I suppose, at some level, it’s impressive what these folks can do with yellow layer cake, fondant, food coloring and lack of shame, but for crying out loud, you’re the freakin’ Food Network, not the Shitty-Sheet-Cake-Promotional-Happy-Meal-Tie-In Network.
And now you’ve made “The Next Food Network Star” your big summertime push. It hurts me to watch it, Bob, because it looks like my beloved Food Network has succumbed to the reality-show dreck that pollutes other once-innovative TV networks, like MTV and VH1. “The Next Food Network Star” has little to do with cooking. It’s not as skanky and poorly behaved as “Daisy of Love” or “The Bachelorette,” but it’s still an excuse to ask a group of Americans to behave like children and let the rest of us stare at them, watching and waiting with bated breath to see which one will cry/scream/curse next, all dressed up as an exercise in finding smooth TV presenters. Not chefs; presenters. Let’s look at the promo for this season’s installment:
In all of those messages the contestants flash to host Bobby Flay, not one of them mentions culinary skill, the ability to create fantastic food, to desire to inspire viewers to take their dinners and their nutrition and their health into their own hands and play a role in making real food prepared by real people the central point of our lives again. (By the way, nice cameo at the end of the clip!)
I get it, Bob. You’re looking for an entertainer, a potential host for a Food Network show who can chit-chat for 22 minutes without making viewers start wondering if the dog needs a walk. But the problem is that that’s all your looking for on “The Next Food Network Star.” I’ve watched, and you and your fellow judges spend a lot of time critiquing the contestants for how they handle being in front of the camera, whether the stories they tell about their childhood seem authentic. You test them on how well they can describe a recipe during a live broadcast while their earpiece is on the fritz. Do you really expect that I’m going to tune into the Food Network because your chefs are deft with an IFB?
Last week, I watched contestant Melissa d’Arabian choke back tears as two other chefs intimated that she didn’t actually cook her meal herself. In your blog about “The Next Food Network Star,” you write about how contestant Debbie Lee, in a recent episode, “endangered her teammates by not buying every item they requested” and how “her actions may have been self-serving and had negative repercussions” in the challenge. You discuss with commenters whether contestant Brett August is a condescending cad or just a lovable rogue. You mention that the judges are “a panel of experts who [sic] understands the demands of food celebrity.” It all perpetuates the sad, basic tenet of the show: that being a host on The Food Network is a game, filled with intrigue and backstabbing and likability and politicking, a contest to see which dancing sideshow performer can distract us the most under jerry-rigged and unrealistic conditions. Oh, and if they can actually cook, too… well, that’s a nice bonus.
And what’s “The Next Food Network Star” gotten you, anyway, Bob? It’s certainly not stars. Season 3 winner Amy Finley filmed one season of shows for you and then walked away. Season 1 winners Dan Smith and Steve McDonough and Season 4 winner Aaron McCargo, Jr. are barely blips on your TV schedule. The only “star” to come out of this series is season 2 winner Guy Fieri, and that’s only because he’s now the spokesman for TGI Friday’s restaurants — which is just this shy of your star chef Sandra Lee shilling for Kentucky Fried Chicken in the embarrassing department. Is that the kind of Food Network star you were looking for? Because I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in your immense and famous Food Network kitchens who thinks TGI Friday’s is the pinnacle toward which your network should be climbing.
(By the way, I didn’t remember Smith, McDonough and McCargo’s names off the top of my head; I found them by looking in the “Where Are They Now?” section of your Web site. The fact that that exists kind of proves my point.)
As a long-time Food Network viewer, Bob, my patience is wearing thin. Put the “Rock of Love” playbook down and please get back to the kitchen.