How Culinary Contests Are Heating Up Ratings
By R. Thomas Umstead -- Multichannel News, 2/27/2012 12:01:00 AM
More than ever before, cooking shows — more precisely, competitive cooking shows — are burning up the ratings chart these days, with viewers devouring the cutthroat culinary competition in droves.
Shows such as Food Network’s Chopped and Cupcake Wars, Bravo’s Emmy-winning series Top Chef and TLC’s The Great Baker are driving ratings for cable networks, not as much for the education as for the entertainment of watching kitchen meltdowns.
“People in uncertain times like the food world because it has a certain warmth to it — the personalities are big and warm, and just being able to watch beautiful food being made is a pleasure unto itself,” Bob Tuschman, general manager of Food Network, said. “I also think the competition genre has had appeal during the happiest and unhappiest of times — it’s just an incredibly engaging, dramatic, character and storydriven form of television.”
The competition food genre — which pits the culinary talents of everyone from nationally known chefs to aspiring cooks in fast-paced meal-preparation challenges — provides viewers with a look at interesting and unique menu options combined with the drama of a competitive environment.
“I’ve always felt there’s an appeal for food programming because it’s an easy-entry way to try some things for ourselves, and the competition just elevates that for everyone at home by taking experienced chefs or bakers and forcing them to up their own game in competition against each other,” TLC general manager Amy Winter said.
Added Tuschman: “For viewers, the combination of the takeaway of great food information that they pick up through the cooking portion of the show and the competitive aspect has appeal. Clearly these are not how-to-cook shows — they should be labeled, ‘Do not try this at home’ — but still you learn little bits and pieces about how chefs work with ingredients that they may come across at home.”
The genre has been a sweet ratings treat for networks such as Food. The Scripps-owned network enjoyed its best ratings year in 2012 due mostly to its food competitionthemed shows like Cupcake Wars, The Food Network Challenge, Food Network Star and Iron Chef America.
Food continued its momentum in January, averaging a record 1.4 million subscribers during the month, an increase of 25% compared to last year, according to network officials.
“These competition shows provide an incredibly dramatic, engaging, edge-of-your-seat viewing experience and they showcase the best chefs in the country making great food,” Tuschman said. “What we try to do is show you the mind of how a great chef works when put under tremendous pressure without the time, ingredients or equipment that they would normally cook with.”
Much of the genre’s success can be attributed to the rise of “foodies” and the interest among consumers in restaurants and the culinary arts, network executives said. “There’s a bigger interest in cooking and wines and knowing about food among young people — it’s an enriching thing to learn and know about, whether it’s cooking or going out to eat,” Dave Serwatka, vice president of programming and production at Bravo, said.
The genre received a major boost in 2010 when Bravo’s long-running series Top Chef earned an Emmy Award for best reality series, dethroning CBS’s The Amazing Race, which had dominated the category since its inception in 2003. The series has benefited from a mix of adrenaline-pumping competition and its attention to detailed preparation of culinary dishes.
Top Chef, which will launch its 10th season later this year, has spurred a number of spinoffs, including Top Chef: Masters and Top Chef: Desserts.
“There’s a human element and drama between the chefs and some of the storytelling that we do in the body of Top Chef that appeals to audiences,” Serwatka said. “There’s a natural affinity that people have to food, and the explosion of food really happened across many plains, including online and print publications.”
Unlike most food-related shows that skew heavily female, Serwatka said that food competition shows like Top Chef draw more male viewers and co-viewing between the sexes.
“I know a lot of husbands who say they’re watching with their wives,” he said. “Knives and fire appeal to the guys, but we try to make a balance of rough-and-tumble stuff and cooking. Food also crosses genders, because everybody has to eat.”
While competition food shows have often featured unknown cooks and up-and-coming chefs, recent shows in the genre have been bui lt around wel lknown culinary stars. Shows like Food Network’s Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off, featuring two of the network’s iconic stars in Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri, and TLC’s The Next Great Baker, which stars Cake Boss’ Buddy Valastro and features contestants in tests of their baking and decorating skills, have broken through the glut of genre series. TLC’s Winter said the network will look to build future shows in the genre around personalities.
The network has already green-lighted a third season of The Next Great Baker, which averaged 1.7 million viewers in its just competed second season, network officials said.
Other networks are also gearing up to launch new shows in the genre.
Bravo last month announced that it will debut Around the World in 80 Plates, in which U.S. chefs will take their talents around the world to test their culinary skills on foreign dishes.
“Hopefully, Around the World in 80 Plates will be a new take on the food competition show that we’re doing. and we’re really excited about it,” Serwatka said. “It’s an international cooking show in the sense that it forces American chefs to master local cuisines.”
MORE AT THE TABLE
African-American targeted network TV One will take a bite out of the genre later this year with the debut of My Momma Throws Down, featuring a weekly faceoff between two family matriarchs competing for cash and prizes, said Toni Judkins, TV One senior vice president of original programming.
TLC’s Winter said she believes any new entry has to offer a unique take to break through the crowded genre.
“You’re going to have to be unique in the marketplace, and there needs to be a reason to watch,” Winter said. “They all seem to be performing fairly well, but it will continue to be a challenge to make sure that what you’re offering has that unique hook to bring people in.”
Food’s Tuschman added that the network is also looking for different opportunities to expand the genre.
“We’ve tried to find new types of competitions that are original that haven’t been done before like Worst Cooks in America and The Great Food Truck Race,” Tuschman said.
“Even Cupcake Wars was a sweet take on a competition show, so I think we’re always trying to figure out what the next new competition show is.”