Food Network: Sating Appetites for Two Decades

Scripps Networks Interactive’s Food Network has cooked up 20 years of cable success, from its early years featuring cooking shows from top chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray to today’s food-based competition and reality series like Iron Chef and Restaurant Impossible. Food Network president Brooke Johnson talked with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the network’s recipe for success both in cable TV and digital media.

MCN: How much has Food Network revolutionized how we watch food-themed content on the small screen?

Brooke Johnson: It’s been an amazing story. I have only been here for a little over 10 years and so I’ve only seen half the time the network has been around. But I remember when it launched and everybody had raised eyebrows about it … Why would anyone want to watch a 24-hour network devoted to food? And now, of course, 20 years later, it seems like the most common, obvious thing — why didn’t everybody else think of it?

MCN: Food-themed programs have always been on TV, but what was Food Network able to do positively and successfully to get people watching on a 24-hour basis?

BJ: Well, I think there are a few factors. One is personality. The network has always been blessed with incredible personality, starting with Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Rachel Ray, Alton Brown, Giada De Laurentiis, Ina Garten, etc. So I think people probably didn’t realize the power of personality, and that food is so much about people and sharing things with people.

Chefs and cooks are just fantastic people — they’re generous, they’re gregarious and they’re fun to be around. I think timing is part of it, too. I think there were changes going on in the macro environment, the availability of more interesting ingredients, etc. I think the Food Network just captured the zeitgeist at the right time, right place when people just discovered what real fun and interesting and entertaining, satisfying, positive for your family thing food is.

MCN: Food Network was also one of the first networks to meld what was on TV to what was being offered on the network’s website. What role has digital media played in the development and building of the Food Network brand?

BJ: I think it’s been incredibly important. I will credit Scripps Networks because right from the beginning, 20 years ago, they had a call center. They had people who would answer people’s questions because they thought that was important. They were really committed to viewer engagement, to doing the right thing by people that were watching either Food Network or HGTV. And then of course, when the Internet came along, it was just a natural thing to move into that. Our website is huge — something like 30 million uniques — and it originally started as the place where you could get the recipe so you didn’t have to write it down while you were watching TV. It seems like a small thing, but it made it easier to watch so you didn’t have to put the recipe up on the screen. So that’s what it started as but now, I mean, it’s so much more than that. Billions of articles, food encyclopedia, everything you could possibly want to know about food, as well as videos. So it’s a huge part of our brand.

It also helped us show that we were a real brand, we weren’t just a television network. The Food Network stood for something. Of course, the website and the network were backed up by our culinary department, which were 30 chefs that worked on recipes and on the shows. So we actually knew what we were talking about, which I think helped, too.

MCN: You mentioned earlier that the network started out more personality-driven. Food has evolved over the years and now it seems like there is more of a focus on competition and reality content. Talk about the evolution of the on-air programming.

BJ: Well again, I wasn’t here in the early days, but I believe it was dominated by pure cooking shows. I’ve heard stories of the early days, cooking on burners in office buildings, and then gradually they expanded beyond that with shows that were on location.

When I came here, there were a lot of shows of people going around the country, learning interesting things about food, and we still do that. I can’t imagine we won’t always do that. I don’t think there [were] any competition [food shows] on the air 10 years ago.

Iron Chef was the first one that I remember. That came about because Iron Chef Japan was doing really well and someone had the really breakthrough idea maybe it would do even better if it were in English. So that started Iron Chef America, which really started the crazy of food competitions, which regretfully you see in many places in television right now.

MCN: So over the 10 years that you’ve been there, has the competition you speak of in the food genre forced Food Network to adjust its programming strategy?

BJ: It has. [Competition] has probably driven costs up a little bit more than was absolutely necessary. It’s hard to find a lot of pluses, but the plus is it does keep us on our toes. We never sit back and go, “Boy, we’re the only game in town, we can do anything we want.” We have to keep innovating. I mean, we probably would anyway, but frankly it demands innovation on our part. Obviously it shows the power of the genre that everyone keeps doing it.

MCN: If you were to take out your crystal ball and look ahead, how do you see your efforts to push the Food Network brand going forward and how do you see the marketplace changing?

BJ: Well I don’t see the main television marketplace changing all that much, even though there’s so much concern about over the top and all of that. I’m much more bullish on the future of cable television than the trade and even consumer press would lead you to believe. I have two millennial children in their early 20s and they love television. One has cable, one doesn’t. The difference is one can afford it and one can’t. As soon as they can afford it, I think they’ll go to television. And I think that strong brands like ours will continue to thrive. And even in a more fragmented world, which is certainly coming over the long horizon, I think that strong brands continue to thrive.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.