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Have the cooking-show people run out of ideas?


Fat Guy
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I rarely watch food programming on TV but this weekend I was at someone's home where the TV was on various channels with cooking shows for many hours.

What surprised me was that the programming was so repetitive, especially in terms of what they were cooking.

Did I have a bad sample, or have they just been cooking the same stuff over and over since the 1990s?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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That's why I enjoy getting UK food publications. They seem more likely to feature recipes from Middle Eastern and other cuisines as a matter of course than American publications. I don't see any food TV programming, but I suspect it's similar, no?

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I think part of the problem is that many shows are dumbed down to appeal to the lowest common denominator instead of challenging home cooks with new ingredients and techniques. Sandra Lee is an excellent example of this.

"Salt is born of the purest of parents: the sun and the sea." --Pythagoras.

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I think part of the problem is that many shows are dumbed down to appeal to the lowest common denominator instead of challenging home cooks with new ingredients and techniques. Sandra Lee is an excellent example of this.

Thank you for saying that. I thought it was just me but I get annoyed when they assume the viewer is a dunce.

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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On the one hand, maybe the market would seem ripe for a show with modern techniques, but maybe people who are really interested in such things are just more likely to use the internet than to watch TV, the idea being that if it's on TV, it really isn't cutting edge anymore.

I know someone who was producing a series of travel shows for a cable network who told me that the producers were very resistant to anything that was vaguely intellectually challenging or different from the usual images of attractive people sitting around the pool at sunset. He still managed to produce some interesting episodes, but didn't get any more work from them afterward.

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I think part of the problem is that many shows are dumbed down to appeal to the lowest common denominator instead of challenging home cooks with new ingredients and techniques. Sandra Lee is an excellent example of this.

Thank you for saying that. I thought it was just me but I get annoyed when they assume the viewer is a dunce.

Not necessarily dunces, but the demographic they're looking for skews fairly adolescent. Might be the same thing.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

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Food TV seems to be entertainment with a food theme more than it is about cooking.

This is true.

But I also think that, when it comes to food tv, there are always going to be people who need the basics or just want to watch. They don't make the food, so it doesn't matter that its repetitious. Here the analogy to porn seems all too apt: its the same thing over and over, but it doesn't matter. If they do want to make the food, they aren't going wildly beyond the basics and probably can't roast a chicken well or make a good omelette so when they do try to make something, they're always starting from the same basic (dare I say missionary) position.

Then again, I'm not part of this audience, I'm just imagining it. So I may be off the mark here. And of course the tv food watching audience is not a monolith, but the lowest common denominator that the execs have to pitch to probably is.

nunc est bibendum...

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Commercial TV is just that: it's a business. It's only about audience size and demographics.

All I can say is thanks for PBS and the internet. One reason why better cooking shows come out of the UK is that BBC 2 and Channel 4 have public education, minority interest, etc requirements written into their charters.

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I don't think they've run out of ideas so much as decided not to mess with formulas that work. They probably get "pitched" 100 fresh, original shows a season but why take a chance on a show about a bearded guy who looks like he hasn't had a date in this millennium demonstrating painstakingly researched medieval Norman cookery when you can have yet another perky young lady making noodle salad instead?

In case anyone in the industry reads this and actually wants to take a chance, you can have the following ideas (for free!):

-Practical brewing show.

-Culinary archaeology show.

-A video version of Pepin's Complete Techniques.

This is my skillet. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My skillet is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it, as I must master my life. Without me my skillet is useless. Without my skillet, I am useless. I must season my skillet well. I will. Before God I swear this creed. My skillet and myself are the makers of my meal. We are the masters of our kitchen. So be it, until there are no ingredients, but dinner. Amen.

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In case anyone in the industry reads this and actually wants to take a chance, you can have the following ideas (for free!):

-Practical brewing show.

I don't think this would work because entry-level brewing could be taught in it's entirety in three one-hour programs.

I suppose shows on various beer styles could keep such a show running for a few seasons.

Once we get into malt biochemistry, water composition and yeast biochemistry, the show would be over the heads of (and very boring for) most of the population.

Like home furniture building, brewing is too much of a niche hobby -- one that relies on periodicals and the internet.

I think Food TV lacks decent programming because there are very few Alton Browns and Julia Childs out there. If we had more people like that, we'd have better Food TV.

Similarly, there isn't an astrophysics channel on TV because the world has produced exactly two people who could host such a show -- Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

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You could teach the basic techniques of French cooking in a season -two, tops- but Julia Child managed milk a lifetime's worth of episodes, guest appearances, TV specials, etc. out of it.

(This is not intended as criticism of the GOL, btw. Knowledge is a substance that adheres through repetition.)

I don't think astrophysics shows are rare because of a shortage of qualified hosts, either - worst case scenario, they could just have Rachel Ray, who knows as much about this topic as she does about cooking, do it. The problem is more likely that there's little public interest in the topic and networks and cable channels want to go after the big mainstream audiences. Even SciFi has dropped their specialty, renamed themselves Syfy and started airing pro wrestling matches.

"Original" shows are pretty much by definition aimed at a new or untapped market, and they don't get a chance because the networks and cable channels would rather fill the slot with something that goes after a proven market.

Those all sound good so long as a perky chef-nymph is doing the talking.

lol

This is my skillet. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My skillet is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it, as I must master my life. Without me my skillet is useless. Without my skillet, I am useless. I must season my skillet well. I will. Before God I swear this creed. My skillet and myself are the makers of my meal. We are the masters of our kitchen. So be it, until there are no ingredients, but dinner. Amen.

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There was an excellent article in the "New York Times" about six months or so back about a new star being groomed for the Food Network. Some well-connected, young and thin female, about as far from Emeril as you could find on Earth. I tried to search for it but I don't have much luck with their search engine.

Anyway, basically the article just said what we already know; cooking is only a small part of it. It's more of an entertainment/lifestyle thing (pardon me, I'm not getting any more articulate in English by living in China). The woman being groomed had about as much cooking experience as your average university student (which is to say not much) but she was attractive and had poise on the camera or some such thing. I mentioned that she was well-connected, right?

While we're on the subject here I'd like to rant a bit about the differences between the U.K. and U.S. versions of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. The U.S. producers must have a very low opinion of the average intelligence of U.S. viewers is all I can think. It's painful to watch the U.S. version. I've never seen Oprah and nothing against her or her success but does every show on TV have to be targeted at the same audience?

Maybe I would have more friends if I didn't eat so much garlic?

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If you eat the same recipe over and over it loses the appeal it had when you first tasted it.

If I could, I would raise Keith Floyd from the grave.

Now while Keith was rude, chaotic, and a drunk, and must have been a pain to work with, he was not a "recipe follower". Somehow, all those aspects were wrapped up with a presentation style that was truly unique.

I clearly remember an iconic episode where he selected a small pier in Hong Kong to cook Sweet and Sour prawns. Now at first glance, I'm sure loads of people will consider sweat and sour prawns as boring, seen it, done it, could do it with blindfolds on, etc. That might be true, but combine some irate water taxi owners who want to "flick me off like an unwanted barnacle" together with Keith Floyd and you have just made a terribly simple dish, amazing to watch.

"Cheers to us"

Luke

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It seems the concept of commercial TV being about ratings and commercials is one that some folks seem to want to ignore. TV cooking shows are about TV more than cooking. The exceptions are some of the PBS shows that have underwriters that allow the producers to focus on cooking and less on personality.

The battle over TV being a commercial or non-commercial medium was fought in the early days with Robert Sarnoff and others leading the way to commercial TV being the winner.

On most US food shows there is indeed some cooking going on. Flay cooks. Brown cooks. Giada cooks. Ina cooks. And I know that this sends chills up the spines of many here, but Rachael and Sandra and Guy cook too. They may not cook how you want them to or use techniques that you think they should. But they are in a kitchen and cooking.

And if somebody watching decides to try to cook something they see them make, as plebian and pathetic as some seem to think it is, instead of going to McDonalds, they have done some good.

If they are beneath you ignore them. watch something else until "Foams with Ferran" or "Gumming up the Works with Wiley and Herve" premire

Edited by lancastermike (log)
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It seems the concept of commercial TV being about ratings and commercials is one that some folks seem to want to ignore. TV cooking shows are about TV more than cooking. The exceptions are some of the PBS shows that have underwriters that allow the producers to focus on cooking and less on personality.

The battle over TV being a commercial or non-commercial medium was fought in the early days with Robert Sarnoff and others leading the way to commercial TV being the winner.

On most US food shows there is indeed some cooking going on. Flay cooks. Brown cooks. Giada cooks. Ina cooks. And I know that this sends chills up the spines of many here, but Rachael and Sandra and Guy cook too. They may not cook how you want them to or use techniques that you think they should. But they are in a kitchen and cooking.

And if somebody watching decides to try to cook something they see them make, as plebian and pathetic as some seem to think it is, instead of going to McDonalds, they have done some good.

If they are beneath you ignore them. watch something else until "Foams with Ferran" or "Gumming up the Works with Wiley and Herve" premire

Yeah my dad watches Lidia Bastianich all the time. Now I don't actually expect him to break out and do something radically different, or for him, really complex from watching her show. That's just not going to happen. But if he did one day try the easy peasy roasted cauliflower or braised kale recipes I've given him a bunch of times, I'd think that was something to be excited about.

You know I wonder whether we've been so conditioned by the example of Julia, Jacques, and the likes of Keith Floyd who did things back in the day like have an entire show about fish (which I think features the prawn episode mentioned above?) because he thought people weren't appreciating fish. Those days are over for TV, whether we've realized it or not. The internet is probably where that kind of thing resides now, as painful as that lack of prominence might be for us who love it so.

nunc est bibendum...

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"And if somebody watching decides to try to cook something they see them make, as plebian and pathetic as some seem to think it is, instead of going to McDonalds, they have done some good."

I agree. I just watched Rachel Ray on Craig Ferguson hawking her latest cookbook, which is openly aimed at people who think they can't cook. She called it something like a cookbook that shows you step-by-step pictures of preparing the recipe, akin to paint-by-numbers. There are also companion online videos of "simple, easy" meals done realtime, no cuts where the prepped food magically appears in a glass bowl on the counter, and no commercial breaks so there's no distractions. (I don't mean to be a salesman for Ms Ray, and I doubt that many of the readers of this blog need a cookbook aimed at inexperienced cooks - but if you are lurking here and it might get you started in preparing better food for yourself and your family, next time you're at the mall, check some cookbooks out at the bookstore before heading to the food court.)

There was an article last fall in Newsweek about the cultural divide between foodies and the majority of Americans, and how the economic ability to shop at Wellspring/Whole Foods/Weaver Street market for some was more about status than healthy eating.

Jamie Oliver's cooking show (and I use the term loosely) about changing the food culture in Charleston, WV was a good idea. There's a much larger difference between a fast food "beef" product[1], and an inexpensive cut of meat plus fresh (or frozen) veggie sides a la Rachel Ray, than there is between her recipe and hand massaged Waygu beef sou vide with white truffle sauce and exotic purple potatoes flown in from the Andes.[2]

I suspect that if you did two videos of identical meals being prepared by Eric Ripert and Rachel Ray, and showed them to groups of inexperienced cooks, they would be more likely to say "I could make that" after watching her than him. Because he has a French accent, and his set and tools look "professional" and "gourmet", beginners would be intimidated.

Jamie Oliver, Rachel Ray, Christopher Kimball, even Martha Stewart cooking shows are helping start people on the path to good cooking.

[1] E.g., 35% meat and 65% filler, with a sauce that's high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable & saturated palm oil, plus synthetic flavorings.

[2] Sounds yummy, but it's still meat & potatoes.

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What gets me is how they all copy each other's ideas. Not confined to cooking shows, it appears in reality type shows ie pawn shops.

When I saw the ad for Restaurant Impossible......how many times has that schtick been done?

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One of my favourite food TV shows (that I can never find on any more) was 'My Greek Kitchen', presented by Tonia Buxton. She travelled to various places in Greece (where she was from - I think) and offered cultural insights as well as recipes. A lot of the time she was cooking or doing other stuff with her family in Greece, which was really interesting and fun to watch.

Actually, I prefer the travel-type food and cookery shows to the studio-audience-format-type shows. They feel more genuine and less contrived. Well, not always maybe, but a lot of the time!

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I'm pretty much down to Good Eats and No Reservations. The rest of 'em just annoy me.

Particularly Giada. She hasn't done anything I want to watch since her first couple seasons.

Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

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Particularly Giada. She hasn't done anything I want to watch since her first couple seasons.

I pitched her and the perky chef-nymph wearing short skirts with the spices on a very high shelf that required them to use a step ladder. For some reason they haven't responded to my letter.

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I can't remember who it was that said it originally. It seems that people want to watch food shows as entertainment instead of a combination of education and entertainment. For example, Julia is instructive but she's not the first thing that comes to mind when you're trying to increase ratings.

A little sad, really.

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The current brand of cooking shows aren't meant for the type of food fanatics that flock to eGullet. If you are the kind of person that makes your own tortillas for taco night, fine tunes your immersion circulator for the perfect runny egg, trudges all over town in search of the most authentic banh mi or has even heard of a banh mi, then in all likelihood, Food Network is not aimed at you. Over the last 5 - 10 years FN has systematically phased out any programming pertaining to what I, and many of you, would consider to be actual cooking. As a result, their ratings are at an all time high.

The new wave of Food related TV seems to be targeting an audience that is interested in a new take on the sloppy Joe, but only as long as it can be finished and put on the table by 6. I don't mean to blast the 30 Minute Meals and Semi-Homemade crowd. I realize plenty of people are cooking simply out of necessity and need to put hot meals on the table at a certain time and within a certain budget, and they draw on FN for inspiration. Not everyone has the same luxury I do of stopping at 3 different asian grocers on the way home from work and dropping a paycheck on spices so they can finish up a batch of chicken makhani just in time to watch Conan.

I used to watch FN a lot in the days before Emeril got a sitcom, or Bobby was throwing down and when Mario wasn't just an iron chef and credit FN for sparking my interest in food. But now, unless you want to know where to get the greasiest burger in Iowa or need a new recipe for loaded chili fries then unfortunately FN no longer wants your viewership.

Edited by Cragganmore17 (log)
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