First Course

Think of the hire as a fine, aged cognac. Brooke Johnson, a one-time A&E and History Channel exec, is running a cable network again. After taking time off to be with her children, she joined Food Network last year as senior vice president and general manager. When former President Judy Girard was tapped to run parent Scripps Networks' recently acquired home shopping channel Shop at Home, Johnson became the head chef. Last week, after Scripps made it official, she shared some thoughts on Food Network and trends in cable programming with B&C.

What does the Food Network need to do more of?

We have a tremendous brand, and our viewership goes up every year. My goal is to keep that momentum going. We also have a lot of opportunities outside of television, with our Web site, broadband, and video-on-demand. I have to steward that to make us more prominent in emerging technologies.

Lifestyle programming is all over television. How does Food compete?

We have two networks in one. There is the "in the kitchen," which is doing spectacularly well. Our cooking shows are beautifully produced, watchable shows about chefs, cookbook authors, and home cooks who are skillful and passionate. And wonderful personalities.

Our prime growth is a little less robust. That's an area we may look to try some new things. We just did Iron Chef America, and it was the highest-viewed show on the network. That's an example where we take something already on network in prime and do something new and different.

What about adding more reality shows? You must get pitched many knockoffs of The Restaurant.

Reality is an area that our viewers, depending on the context, would allow and feel comfortable with. Everyone talks about The Restaurant
on NBC.

A reality show where food was a central figure is certainly something we could, should, and would explore. We do get pitched Restaurant-type shows all the time. But Food Network is never going to do a fake reality show. We're not going to concoct plots. Could we do a show where real people play a more prominent role? The answer is yes.

There are home-makeover shows on TV. Why aren't there more cooking-themed shows?

The big problem with food is, you can't taste it on television. It doesn't lend itself as easily as many reality or lifestyle formats. It is hard to do, and you need a lot of expertise. We have a whole culinary department with knowledgeable, experienced people. That is what you don't see. It's the secret of our success. We really know what we're doing. And it takes some infrastructure to do it.

Are you as much of a chef as the people on your network?

I like to cook but wouldn't say I am a cook. I never made a béchamel [cream-and-butter] sauce in my life. I'm the quick-and-easy, one-pot-wonder type of cook.