June 27, 2013

Paula Deen illuminates the world. She shows, in her own gaudy fashion, what really matters to the people who run American television — not just the past use of the N-word and other savory epithets, but how many viewers her program was attracting. In the end, it may not have been the N-word that sunk her, but the R one. Her ratings were down.

In fact, the Wall Street Journal tells us this week, Deen had yet to sign a contract for the upcoming year. Her ratings were down 22 percent with the most-cherished 18- to 49-year-olds and 15 percent overall. This might not have been totally her fault since ratings for her kind of cooking show, called “dump and stir” in the business, are down across the board. Martha Stewart has suffered as well. These shows, as opposed to cooking contests and competitions, are considered old fashioned.

Pardon my cynicism, but I suspect that if her ratings had held or were rising, the Food Network would not have dumped her. We would instead have read statements about how her foul language was a vestige of the past  – used only occasionally then and never anymore. We would have been instructed to consider the context, the times, where she was raised and how hard she has worked. She is the embodiment of the determined woman, a hard worker — and she had done it all not by standing at the sided of some man, but by herself. She had gone from rags (sort of) to riches (no sort of there) and what could be wrong with that?

Paula Deen on the "Today" show.
Paula Deen on the “Today” show. (Peter Kramer/NBC)

After all, when Deen managed to fess to having Type 2 diabetes at the same time she was promoting sugary recipes, the network did not fire her as a fraud but kept her on. Even after it became clear that she was coming clean about her condition only after she became the paid spokeswoman for Novo Nordisk, a Danish firm which happens to make diabetes drugs. Until she fessed up, Deen was in effect saying that there was no downside to her sugary, buttery recipes. It was, in the larger sense of the word, a lie.

The sponsors didn’t budge, but the audience responded. Deen’s image took a hit. Her ratings started to slide and, with diminished revenues, her show got too expensive to produce. Still, she did okay. Forbes magazine said she took in about $17 million with her show, magazine and restaurants. Now that figure is going to be vastly diminished. The show is gone, endorsements, too. Her sponsors finally did the right thing — not because it was the right thing but because it was good business.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.