Food TV's new clone

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010; 7:27 AM

NEW YORK--Bobby Flay stands at the grill and checks the sizzling ribeyes, which, despite their scintillating smell, look increasingly charred.

"Are they burning? They are, a little," warns his assistant, Stephanie Banyas.

"No, they're not," Flay insists, painting the steaks with a marinade brush before turning to the pot of chili, spooning it into three bowls, adding dollops of creme fraiche and a sprinkling of cumin.

"I started at Food Network when there were like 19 viewers," Flay says here at the channel's gleaming headquarters in Chelsea Market, a former Nabisco cookie factory. "They had no money. You couldn't be a guest unless you could get there by subway or taxi."

But even as the 17-year-old network has flourished, and Flay has become a renowned chef and restaurant owner, executives have repeatedly rejected his idea for a show about brunch. "They didn't think it was a big enough subject," he says.

Now Flay is finally getting his program on the air--but not on Food Network. The man who made his name with southwestern cuisine will be cooking brunch on a spinoff called the Cooking Channel, which debuts at month's end.

Does the world really need another food network? Is there anything left to say, any dish that has remained uncooked? Couldn't this give America a big fat case of indigestion?

Michael Smith, the Cooking Channel president, says the venture is in part a defensive move: "We knew, if we didn't try, that one of our major competitors--Discovery or Time Warner or Disney or Viacom--might create a 24-hour food channel. We think there's an audience that wants to go broader and deeper."

Smith is creating new platforms for three of Food's most bankable stars--Flay, Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray--to entice viewers to sample its more specialized fare. But understanding the vision for the new Scripps Networks channel--which replaces called a sleepy offering called Fine Living--requires a look at Food's recent evolution.

The network built its identity on stand-and-stir shows: Rachael's 30-minute meals, Emeril kicking it up a notch. But once that became as familiar as leftovers, the prime-time ratings dipped. Viewers, says Smith, wanted it raw, and more entertaining.

So Food jumped on the reality-show trend. First, in 2005, came "Iron Chef America," a copy of the Japanese speed-cooking version. And the "Apprentice"-style "Next Food Network Star." Then "Throwdown" (in which Flay takes on local chefs in surprise cook-offs) and "Food Network Challenge" (competitions for the tallest pie or spiciest chili) and "Ultimate Recipe Showdown" (based on submissions from home cooks) and "Worst Cooks in America" (a boot camp for a dozen losers). Other networks joined the bandwagon, such as Bravo with "Top Chef."

Food's ratings have jumped about 25 percent in the last three years, according to Nielsen Co. figures, reaching 707,000 viewers overall and 1.13 million in prime time, with commercial time often sold out. But all these throwdowns and showdowns left fewer slots for, well, cooking. So Scripps decided to launch the second channel, aiming for an audience that would be more discerning and, not to put too fine a point on it, younger.

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