Michael Smith’s one-time dream job was to be the general manager of a TV station, like one of the people he used to call on as manager of affiliate relations during his time at CBS. “I aspired to be a general manager like those on [TV show] WKRP in Cincinnati,” he says, citing the late-1970s Loni Anderson sitcom. “Back in those days, those jobs were pretty cool. Twenty years later, it’s cable that’s more prominent.”
Now, as general manager of the Cooking Channel, which launches May 31, Smith has oversight of both the programming and marketing of this Scripps Networks Interactiveowned Food Network spinoff. The channel’s Facebook fan page has already notched more than 14,000 entries.
Smith began his ascent after earning his M.B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1986, spending his first two years working at advertising agency Young & Rubicam. During his first job in TV, he traveled the country pitching CBS shows to affiliate stations, before leaping to Disney Channel to begin pitching that service to cable operators.
That role didn’t quite fit his highly creative streak, which he kept alive by operating a photo studio from his apartment as well as recording CDs and writing music for singers. In 1992, Disney gave him the big break he wished for, signing him as director of on-air promotions for the channel. He spent six years in that role, moving up the ladder and helping to launch the service in Singapore. Smith got his next big break with Food Network, where he became VP of creative services, overseeing marketing and creative strategy.
One of his biggest challenges has been figuring out exactly how distinct the Cooking Channel should be from Food, its sister service. Should it look like ESPN2, the team wondered, or go in a completely different direction? The answer turned out to be something in between.
Smith has created a network that gives foodies wider opportunities to get more of what they love from Food Network while also targeting “a different type of food interest,” he explains. “They’re people who grew up watching Food Network and now are ready to go to the next level. They’re fairly accomplished, and it gets a little deeper and broader.”
Smith, who admits his favorite dish is nothing more sophisticated than General Tso’s chicken, describes just how Cooking Channel intends to cater to those interests. Drink Up is a show about cocktails, wines and beers, hot bars and wineries; while Foodography is the network’s answer to AETN’s Biography, only for food: “It’s all about the history of various foods.”
The channel will also air documentaries. Two other shows that excite him: Food Crafters, about people who have “unique artisan food businesses or custom cafes or sell special kinds of pickles,” and Unique Eats, which features one-of-a-kind restaurants such as Aureole in Las Vegas.
“The people who are hyper-passionate about food used to be upscale and older—the Masterpiece Theater set,” Smith points out. “But the interesting trend is that young people are more passionate about food than their parents. And they want something a little less food-Disneyland; they want something grittier and independent.”
Talking about his career success, the Canadian-born Smith lauds his parents for their role in equipping him with the skills necessary to survive and ultimately thrive. “I owe a lot of credit to my parents, who were Jamaican immigrants,” Smith says. “My mother had the courage to leave and went to the U.K. without even a winter coat to study nursing in Wales, while my father left his job as a carpenter and went to become a missionary in Canada.”
Without the courage to leave their Caribbean island and step out and do something different, Smith ponders what else he might have cooked up in his life. Whatever it is, chances are good it would still leave him time to whip up his beloved spicy sausage with penne.
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