Media World: Yummo! Food Network soars as restaurants flounder

The next Food Network Challenge may be this: getting the home of Rachael Ray (right), Bobby Flay, and Mario Batali to top its recent success.

Over the past few months, the 16-year-old channel has been on a tear -- "Yummo!" as Ray might say -- with cash-strapped consumers turning to the Food Network to help stretch their food budgets. June was the Scripps Networks Interactive (SNI) network's highest-rated month ever, and the second quarter was its best ever as well. The Food Network, which reaches about 98 million U.S. households, consistently ranks among the top 10 cable networks in ratings among the desirable demographic of viewers aged 25 to 54. Its audience, though, is more diverse than that.
To be sure, the channel has not been immune to the economic downturn, particularly the soft ad market. Operating revenue in the first quarter dropped 2.5 percent to $116 million. Gross ad revenue is expected to dip to $457.7 million this year but forecast to rebound to $480 million next year, according to research firm SNL Kagan.

The impact of the Food Network is huge. Ray, for one, has become a national celebrity with her own syndicated talk show. Spikey-haired restaurant owner Guy Fieri parlayed his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program into a cookbook that stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 30 weeks. Fieri also was a spokesman for T.G.I. Fridays.

The merchandising has only just begun. This holiday season, Food Network will launch a Wii game, Food Network: Cook or Be Cooked, that will teach and test cooking chops, and two more cookbooks: Good Eats and Ace of Cakes, according to the network.

The Food Network squeezes what it can from its talent. Fieri, Southern chef Paula Dean, and writer Ted Allen appear on multiple programs. The variety is impressive.

The channel has its own game show, Iron Chef America, pitting two seasoned chefs against each other, preparing dishes using a secret ingredient -- anything from apples to sea cucumbers -- to determine whose "cuisine reigns supreme." Chopped is the Food Network's American Idol: cooks compete for a $10,000 price by withstanding the sometimes withering criticism of a three-judge panel.

Cake decorators compete in the Food Network Challenge to design sculptural pastry. Calling them "cakes" diminshes their artistry; ditto for some of the creations on Ace of Cakes. These shows and others have helped boost applications to the Culinary Institute of America, the premiere culinary school in the U.S, a Food Network spokesman says.

"It has really changed the face of the cultural landscape," says John Nihoff, a professor of gastronomy at the Culinary Institute of America, who has judged Iron Chef. "The driving cultural force of food is the Food Network."

The resturaunt industry continues to struggle with tightening credit standards and a rising minimum wage. Sales at full-service restaurants are projected to reach $182.9 billion in 2009, an increase of 1 percent over 2008, according to the National Restaurant Association. Sales at quick-service restaurants are expected to rise 4 percent to $163.8 billion.

Among the network's strengths, which its execs hope to capitalize on, is its appeal to viewers unlimited by age or demographic background. It also is one of the few cable channels to program for daytime (instructional programs) and nighttime (feature shows), says Bob Tuschman, senior V.P. of programming.

The channel seeks deeper relationships with its talent, Tuschman says.

Tuschman is on-air talent himself: a panelist on The Next Food Network Star. Judging from the 3,000 to 4,000 wannabes who contact the Food Network annually, that job will keep getting more difficult.

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