Cooking Channel charts a grittier course for culinary television

New attitude: Aida Mollenkamp will leave the studio to explore artisan foods on the Cooking Channel.
New attitude: Aida Mollenkamp will leave the studio to explore artisan foods on the Cooking Channel. (Chris Colima/associated Press)
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By Michael Hill
Saturday, April 24, 2010

There's more food TV than ever to chew on -- shows featuring barbecue tips, chef smack-downs, easy Italian dishes, sailor-mouthed kitchen bosses, diner dispatches and cakes that look like race cars.

Want more? Or maybe the better question is, need more?

The Food Network is betting on it.

The Cooking Channel debuts next month and, like its well-established sister channel, it will offer 24-7 food programming. Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay and a few other Food Network stars will pull double duty on the new channel. But executives with Scripps Networks Interactive, which owns both channels, say the Cooking Channel will have a different flavor, one with more emphasis on international cuisines, drinks, food culture and advanced-cooking techniques.

One executive likened the relationship between the two channels to a major movie studio and its indie-spirited niche film division.

"The tone and the style and the feel that we're going for is a little grittier, a little younger, a little more contemporary," said Bruce Seidel, the new channel's senior vice president for programming and production.

Cutting loose

The TV landscape is dramatically different from when the Food Network launched in 1993. Back in that pre-"Iron Chef" era, food shows were typically "behind-the-stove" affairs on public television.

The Food Network helped usher in a culinary era in which top chefs cut loose, compete and are idolized like pop stars. Critics grumble that the network has elevated personality over food. But by producing a series of household names -- Emeril, Giada, Rachael -- the Food Network has had a huge impact on culinary TV and the cookbook industry.

One big marker of that success is the boom in food shows. Bravo has scored with "Top Chef," and TLC has "Cake Boss." There's "Hell's Kitchen" on Fox and "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" on ABC. It's almost easier to list stations that don't have food shows. Even the History Channel has "Food Tech," and Syfy is developing "Marcel's Quantum Kitchen."

The number of hours devoted to food shows has more than tripled in five years, said Cooking Channel General Manager Michael Smith. But he added that the Food Network ratings grew 40 percent in the last two years even as the food field became more crowded. Scripps executives believe there is more room for foodies to get their fix, a feeling shared by industry watchers who observe Americans' continuing fascination with food.

"We saw that this category is so hot that if we didn't launch another full-time food channel, somebody else probably would," Smith said.

Stew of old and new

The Cooking Channel will offer a stew of shows new, old and imported, starting May 31. Under a co-production deal, some shows on Food Network Canada will air later on the Cooking Channel. That includes "Food Jammers," which revolves around three Canadian guys and their goofy culinary inventions, such as 3-D pizza and a taco vending machine. The channel also is bringing over from England shows such as "Indian Food Made Easy."

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