Kristin Brzoznowski checks in on what’s new in the popular genre of cooking formats.
Whether tuning in to watch amateur cooks pour their heart into a home recipe, witness the meltdown of an ego-driven celebrity chef in a high-pressure kitchen environment or be entertained by the antics of a judging panel in a blind taste test, viewers seem to have an insatiable appetite for food shows. Though the ingredients of what comprises a hit cooking format today may differ from the components of the plat du jour of the past, what remains unchanged is their success in the marketplace.
“We have always had good luck with cooking shows,” says Izzet Pinto, the founder and CEO of Global Agency. “Even today, these sell the best. This is true whether it’s a paper format or whether it has already been produced.”
He believes that of all the format genres, cooking series have the greatest chances of making it to air from paper pitches. “Let’s say that in a given country, there are five main channels; at least three of them will want a cooking format,” Pinto posits. “Whereas with a talent format, out of five channels, maybe one needs a talent show. Because the demand is so high, it’s an easier sell.”
Indeed, food shows remain a staple for many broadcasters around the globe, but what viewers have a taste for nowadays is changing, Pinto says. “In the past, people used to watch cooking shows with a popular host or chef to learn more about recipes, ingredients and cooking styles. Now, there are a lot of competition-based cooking shows—but with more drama.”
From Global Agency’s catalog, the drama-filled Rivals-in-Law and Momstershave been strong performers, with heightened emotional elements stemming from the family dynamics in the competitions helping to set them apart.
Chris Knight, the president and CEO of Gusto Worldwide Media, sees a shift on the horizon in terms of what’s popular in the food space. “Formats right now in the food genre typically tend to be contests or competition shows,” he says. “There are still the big shiny-floor, high-budget perennial shows that we all know, like [ones where] somebody is in the kitchen yelling at the top of their lungs. Those shows are highly entertaining, but they’re going to run their course pretty soon; a lot of these shows are in their 10th or 11th season—sooner or later, they run out of steam.”
Even the smaller competition shows, like those centered on food subsets such as cupcakes or backyard barbeques, “are pretty much done now,” he adds. “It’s become repetitive, so everyone is looking for the next new thing.”
For Knight and Gusto, that special “thing” rests in the storytelling at the heart of the show. “Contests sort of absolve you of having to tell a story,” he says. “You have some people at the beginning who are competing, somebody gets told they’re not good enough and then somebody wins; it’s a format that’s as applicable to furniture upholstery as it is to food. It’s something that we can all easily understand; we can turn on the television, turn off our brains and watch hijinks for a little while. It’s been tremendously successful for a very long time. Now, we have to get back to storytelling and making emotional connections—and food has a very powerful way of doing that.”
Elliot Wagner, senior VP of international program sales at Discovery, agrees that fresh flavors are needed to spice things up nowadays. “The best formats have distinct elements that go beyond ‘dump and stir’ tutorials or traditional ‘who cooks it better’ competitions,” he says. “Many of our formats have unique twists on how ingredients are sourced and competitive advantages (or disadvantages) that add a general-entertainment angle, while staying true to good cooking technique and instruction.”
Japan’s TV Asahi has a wide range of cooking shows, “from funny ones to very serious competitions,” says Shuji Maeda, sales executive for format sales and development. “At the moment, we think viewers tend to prefer programs that give practical advice or tips for daily cooking. These shows are good to sell as finished programs, but for format sales, more entertainment elements are required. That is why we created the cooking-show paper format The Gacha Gacha Show,” which was submitted for the ATF Formats Pitch last December.
The competition sees three participants—celebrities or professional chefs—cook a meal and compete for a cash prize, but all the ingredients materialize from the gigantic “Gacha Gacha” (a capsule toy machine).
“As we have seen with so many cooking shows, and some of the global megahits, we felt that we needed to have an icon that stood out and distinguished the format,” Maeda says. “In our format, it is Gacha Gacha, and viewers will be able to recognize the format at first glance.”
Maeda believes the series has the potential to play in any time slot. “We felt that for daily slots, the show should be more practical, providing useful information to viewers. But to work in a prime-time entertainment slot, it must be bigger and well-structured, both as an episode and as a season. The Gacha Gacha format has the potential to drive in both directions: it can be a very practical show offering many cooking tips or it can become a big-scale, shiny-floor entertainment show with a gigantic Gacha Gacha.”
Global Agency, meanwhile, sees particular demand at the moment for cooking in daytime and access prime time. For example, its format My Wife Rules works well in an access-prime slot, according to Pinto, as it is stripped across the week. “When you schedule a show as a strip, it’s really difficult to find a place in prime time,” he says.
“Most broadcasters want a strippable, prime show but are constrained by the economic reality of original production,” notes Discovery’s Wagner. “It really depends on the show and specific broadcaster, but generally, the investment will demand that these shows target their core demo in prime time and work throughout the schedule. In subsequent renewal, as volume grows, these shows can find new audiences in daytime and fringe.”
And cooking formats do, indeed, have the ability to deliver a value proposition in their volume. “The stripped formats in Europe, notably CIS and CEE, can run over 200 episodes a year,” Pinto says, which helps to amortize the cost of production. “Once a cooking show has proven that it works, the broadcaster doesn’t need to replace it for a long time.”
The high volume and viewer loyalty also help to attract sponsors, he adds, which is one of the ways that cooking series can help to generate value for a broadcaster.
Pinto says that, by and large, cooking shows are one of the most cost-effective format genres. “For daytime and daily stripped programs, the set and decor cost the most,” he adds.
Wagner agrees that sponsorships, as well as product integration (as allowed by certain broadcasting regulations), are a great way to drive down the cost of a format production. “In the food genre, it would make sense to pursue sponsorship from cookware, food product, household supply and other applicable advertising categories,” he says.
WATCHING THE BUDGET
In Wagner’s view, travel and talent are the two biggest variables that influence the cost of producing a food format. “A-list talent will help drive tune-in but can quickly cause a budget to swell,” he explains. “As does shooting on-location versus a studio-based production. We often work with producers to determine how certain cost-prohibitive elements can be mitigated while still staying true to the original format.”
Gusto’s Knight asserts that “if the core idea to the format is a good one and can stand on its own merit, then you can scale all of the bells and whistles up and down depending on what sort of budget the acquiring broadcaster or platform has.”
While there certainly can be value in having an A-list name attached to a show, Gusto has found success with hosts who are hip, young and culturally diverse—reflecting the audiences watching its shows. “You don’t have to be a world-famous chef,” says Knight. “In fact, I would make the argument that the skills necessary to be an excellent chef are not the skills necessary to make an emotional connection on a television show.”
Gusto puts all its food-show hosts through a three-day boot camp, where they work on everything from posture to language to eye contact with the camera. “It all starts with something inside that person, something innate, something that allows that person to make a connection. That’s what we are all on the lookout for. Having a good idea for a show is one thing, but it’s marrying the right talent with that idea that is what makes a show popular.”
Global Agency’s Pinto agrees that if the format itself is strong, you don’t need to attach a big name to it. It can actually be a star-making vehicle for a charismatic young talent, he says. “I have seen in many countries with our formats that the production house hires a relatively well-known person to present, and then they become super famous.”
This was the case with TV Asahi’s Gourmet Academy, as a professional chef who was one of the judges gained stardom thanks to his critical comments. “With his very handsome good looks, he attracted many female fans,” says Maeda. “Nowadays, we can easily find good restaurants with internet reviews and smartphone apps like TripAdvisor, but it is very difficult to find a decent chef who can speak well on TV. So, it’s important to have chefs with not just culinary skills but with charisma and good communication skills.”
Authenticity is key, says Discovery’s Wagner. “Charisma is not enough if the talent does not have bona fide cooking skills. That is something that can’t be faked.” He adds that emerging digital platforms are “a great incubator of new cooking talent, many of which are ready to make the leap into long-form and can bring a substantial following of fans.”
While compelling on-air talent is one part of the equation, a new food show trying to break through in today’s marketplace still has challenges to face. “There certainly is not room for it all,” says Wagner. “To rise above the clutter, a show needs to have unique elements that weave together the best ‘hooks’ of the genre, and it needs to resonate with local audiences. Having an innovative show is critical, but sometimes it is not enough. Producers and broadcasters are often looking for support with production deliverables, consultation and budget guidance. A great show with the right partners can have a long shelf life.”
The interviews for this report were conducted prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Media companies are currently shifting their strategies in the wake of production postponements and economic trends.