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Cable Nets Hungry for Food Ads

With an eye toward capturing a slice of the nearly $12 billion food ad market, some less-likely programmers are cooking up new shows that were once the forte of only Food Network and PBS.

NBC Universal’s Syfy is developing a series starring former Top Chef contestant Marcel Vigneron. And TLC, which found success with Cake Boss and BBQ Pitmasters, is planning a further expansion into food with a new show, The Food Buddha, starring Rodelio Aglibot, the chef and owner of Chicago’s Sunda restaurant.

Syfy and TLC are expanding the roster of networks adding entries to the food game. Bravo, IFC and Travel Channel have all found the genre rich in both viewers and advertisers. Scripps, which owns Food, is going so far as to rebrand FLN as The Cooking Channel starting May 31. And the Oprah Winfrey Network plans at least one show starring chef Cristina Ferrare.

It helps that the genre has a large built-in advertiser base, with companies like General Mills and Kraft, as well as related products like kitchen accessories eager to market their wares in a down economy. Food marketing spending was nearly $12 billion in 2009, according to Advertising Age. Related fields, like soft drinks and liquor companies, added billions more to the total.

“There is a lot of endemic advertising for these types of shows,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of Horizon Research. “It lets networks put something on that is not expensive, advertisers like it, and there are a lot of product placement opportunities, if nothing else.”

Set to debut in June, The Food Buddha will find Aglibot going into local restaurants and ordering everything on the menu. At the end of the 30-minute program, he will incorporate elements from the meals he’s eaten into items at his own restaurant.

“[The Food Buddha] takes us out of the dessert category we have been working in,” says Eileen O’Neill, president and general manager of TLC. “It is a really ad-salesfriendly and diverse category for us.”

Bravo, which has carved its own niche in the food competition genre with Top Chef and Top Chef Masters, continues to add programming in that arena. The network has another spinoff, Top Chef: Just Desserts, on tap for later this year, and has two other competition series in development, Commander In Chef and Around the World in 80 Plates.

“Food is one of those things that people are passionate about,” says Susan Malfa, senior VP of national advertising sales for Bravo. “That is ultimately what the payoff is for advertisers; people are passionate about that affinity, there is high engagement, and that drives high results for advertisers.”

Networks are looking to cultivate that engagement by differentiating themselves from the competition with unique formats or the personalities of the stars. As Adgate points out, the genre is not new, but given the advertising opportunities, one shouldn’t expect networks’ appetite for these shows to slow anytime soon.

“Since the days of Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet, there have always been cooking shows on television,” Adgate says. “Just not to the extent of what we are seeing now.”