Dining In

With so many food-related series on the market, producers and distributors weigh in about what a show needs to stand out.

Food programming has come a long way from its instructional stand-and-stir origins. Rather than a prim homemaker demonstrating the proper way to make a super-fluffy soufflé, the food shows that are popular today feature high-tension competitions, around-the-world explorations, celebrity chefs who have achieved rock-star status and practically everything in between. And the inventive iterations just keep on coming, as the appetite for food-related series shows no signs of waning.

While it’s true that cooking and food have long been popular on TV, recently there has been a particular resurgence, according to Chris Knight, the president and CEO of Gusto Worldwide Media, who has authored several best-selling cookbooks and produced hundreds of hours of culinary TV content. “It has tapped into a zeitgeist,” Knight says. “People have a renewed interest in where their food comes from and how to prepare it.”

This programming is resonating with a new generation as well, Knight adds, noting that Gusto’s shows feature “younger voices, higher production values and great music.”

“As of late, there’s been a strong surge of interest with younger audiences,” agrees Angela Neillis, the director of non-scripted for EMEA and the Asia Pacific at FremantleMedia International (FMI). Being healthy and having an active lifestyle have become more important to a younger generation, she says, and the latest crop of food series reflects that.

“There are a lot of well-known personalities who are now offering healthy food shows,” Neillis explains. “We have a huge amount of success with Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Super Food. He’s gotten into healthy food and is passionate about it. He carries the viewers with him when he talks about it. That appeals to the motivation in a lot of younger audiences for healthier lifestyle choices.”

“Viewers’ appetite for food programming mirrors the current focus on locally sourced food, seasonal eating and healthy lifestyles,” agrees Caroline Stephenson, the senior VP for northern EMEA at all3media International.

Stephenson has observed the genre’s evolution away from its chop-and-chat beginnings and divides what’s currently trending in the food space into two different camps. There are the “‘how-to’ shows that revel in simple food being brilliantly executed with an emphasis on excellent ingredients; and the grandstanding shows such as Great British Menu that showcase the finest foods that chefs can create.”

Michael Lolato, the senior VP of international distribution at GRB Entertainment, says that culinary battles are also in vogue. “What has evolved from the traditional [food] shows is the competition element,” he says. Another new development, Lolato adds, is the rise of “exploration elements—whether it is people searching for new types of places to eat, variations of foods or exploring different cultures.”

These intrepid food explorers are no longer confined to their kitchens, either. “Today, presenters are traveling and cooking on location,” says Munia Kanna-Konsek, the head of sales at Beyond Distribution, highlighting the series Chuck’s Week Off: Mexico. “They are joining competitions, like those seen in BBQ Crawl; cooking for royalty, as seen in Cooking for the Crown; covering feasts at assorted weddings, as seen in I Do…Let’s Eat; and rediscovering their roots and foodie passions, like in My France with Manu.

“They are also exploring cuisines that haven’t always been the most popular or common,” she adds. For example, Beyond will launch season five of Pati’s Mexican Table at MIPCOM. “Although extremely popular throughout the world, Mexican cuisine has, I feel, largely been neglected on screen,” says Kanna-Konsek.

Given the plethora of possibilities for food programming to cross over into other genres and the sheer volume of cooking-related shows on offer, the marketplace has become quite crowded. So what can make a show cut through? Star power, for one, certainly provides a boost.

“It helps if you have an established brand that has other ancillary distribution such as books, a social-media presence and fans and fanatics loving and following the show,” says Emilia Nuccio, the senior VP of sales at Dynamic Television. “The global appeal of the talent and the cuisine is hugely important.”

Dynamic Television is home to a catalog of shows featuring the veteran celebrity chef and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich, including the PBS cooking series Lidia’s Kitchen. “Lidia has universal appeal because most people in the world know a grandmother who cooks,” says Nuccio of Bastianich’s nostalgic approach to TV food prep. “I also think that Italian food is loved everywhere, and Lidia teaches you in the most loving and supportive way how to cook Italian. Lidia’s show is modern and yet it speaks to the fundamental core of human beings: family, getting together, celebrating holidays, eating and enjoying as a community.”

FMI’s roster of cooking talent includes, alongside Jamie Oliver, presenter and food writer Nigella Lawson. Neillis explains that the company works very closely with producers and talent to “really max out the noise they can make in a territory. We’ve got a very honed process for maximizing visibility [for brands] in a given market.” As an example, she cites the simultaneous rollout of Lawson’s Simply Nigella series and the companion cookbook last MIPCOM.

“Integrity makes the best food shows stand out from the crowd,” says all3media International’s Stephenson. “It’s about having the right chef in the right show. Gordon Ramsay had the drive and presence to create Kitchen Nightmares, with his unique brand of tough love having turned around so many struggling restaurants—a model he followed with Hotel Hell. This has been transposed by casting similar passionate characters in local versions. Equally, Heston Blumenthal really is the only chef to create the fabulous and fantastical menus in three seasons of Heston’s Feasts.”

Others argue that there doesn’t necessarily need to be a hotshot celebrity chef commanding the kitchen for a series to resonate; the host just needs to be someone viewers can relate to.

“To engage the audience, authenticity is important,” says Tony Iffland, the general manager for ABC Content Sales at ABC Commercial. “It’s not about having a ‘food actor,’ but having a real person who is authentic without being pompous or condescending.”

Iffland says that this is also a good way to open the genre to viewers who are new to the cooking space. “Food can be pretty scary for people who are average everyday cooks for their family and just want to prepare something a little better, in a more interesting way or make sure they have the nutrition right. It can be quite daunting for people to approach that. It’s important to have a host who’s welcoming, engaging, brings you in and takes away some of that fear of not knowing how to do it.”

Often, having a charismatic host is what gives a food show its flavor—whether it be a well-known personality, a highly regarded professional with a long list of culinary credits or a less experienced but passionate presenter who’s just downright relatable. Hayden Quinn, for example, didn’t have the background of working in a five-star restaurant when he first appeared on TV; he got his start as a contestant on MasterChef Australia. “His personality is just so endearing that now everybody is in love with him,” says Lolato at GRB, which represents Hayden Quinn South Africa. “On the flip side, we’ve had BBQ Pitmasters now for six seasons. Myron Mixon, who is the head judge, is an expert. He’s become so popular that he got spun-off with one of our new shows, BBQ Rules, which is more instructional barbecue versus the competition [angle of Pitmasters]. The expert element in that one paid off.”

Twofour Rights, meanwhile, supplies a number of shows that have no hosts at all, among them World’s Best Restaurants. This recipe has even helped the series to achieve a wider breadth of sales, according to Anthony Appell, the director of Twofour Rights.

“We don’t like to put the light on a presenter; the stories should speak for themselves, and the food should speak for itself,” he says. “Internationally, taking the host out works much better for us. The individual broadcasters can top and tail the show with their own host perhaps, or can keep it as is.”

One of the company’s most popular food-centric series is Choccywoccydoodah, set within a shop that creates custom cakes. “It isn’t about one person; it’s about how, as a team, this group comes to build a cake or meets a deadline,” Appell explains. “It has suspense in it and quirkiness. [Our shows] are meant to be about a journey rather than about a presenter.”

In much the same way that families come together at the dinner table for a night’s meal, food series have the ability to get everyone in the household to gather around the TV set, Appell says. “It’s a genre that’s come back in fashion because anyone in the family can relate to it—it doesn’t matter if you’re young or old. Parents are watching these shows with their kids.”

Appell says that there’s even an eye on making more shows that cater to the younger and older ends of the demographic spectrum. “MasterChef Junior does really well, maybe even better than the adult version in some territories,” he notes. “Is there something else we can do around fabulously talented kids? Also, what about the older generation? There hasn’t been a type of show that relates to them and their recipes and traditions. There’s a lot more we can do in the food genre with kids and the older generation equally.”

Indeed, food shows can have cross-generational appeal, and many are equally alluring across genders. “Food preparation and the enjoyment of food is classless and appeals to both men and women,” says Beyond’s Kanna-Konsek. “I think the trend toward competitive cookery shows brings out the opportunity for more family-orientated viewing, too.”

Stephenson of all3media International echoes this sentiment. “Our broadcasters tell us that the majority of our food shows appeal to both men and women, especially competition series such as Worst Cooks in Americaand Great British Menu, and shows such as Kitchen NightmaresHeston’s Feasts and Gok Cooks Chinese. The chef world is predominantly a male environment and thanks to a wide range of high-profile male food talent, men are cooking at home more than ever.”

The wide audience reach is but one of many reasons that cooking and food series are popular with broadcasters, Stephenson adds. “Food shows led by strong, noisy talent build an audience following very quickly, and non-sequential series offer a quick scheduling solution and a potentially enhanced ROI for broadcasters. Equally, competition series create a following and often build on-demand appetite with viewers desperate to know what happens next.”

Given their ability to garner loyal viewers, many food shows go on to become long-running franchises that return to a broadcaster either with new seasons or spin-offs. “The majority of our food-programming titles are in their second or third seasons,” says Beyond’s Kanna-Konsek. “These series offer additional security for buyers who want to ensure they are acquiring successful shows and the additional benefit of having more series content available.”

They also provide a nice amount of scheduling flexibility for broadcasters and can work across a variety of slots. “The advantage of food shows is that they can be played any time of day,” says GRB’s Lolato. “It’s general entertainment and safe for the family—there’s no violence, death, sex. These shows can be for daytime, prime time when they’re brand new or weekend fare.

“The other beauty of it is that they’re self-contained, so you can dip in to watch a show and not have to have seen the episode before it,” he adds. That’s another scheduling bonus for the broadcasters.

Not only does this genre play well across various dayparts, the sales potential spans nearly all types of channels. Food series can be seen on large general-entertainment broadcasters and niche lifestyle networks alike—and certain brands may make their way onto both.

FMI, for example, has nurtured the Jamie Oliver franchise with a targeted windowing strategy. “In all the territories we’ve taken his shows into, we’ve worked with a combination of channels and slots to really maximize the visibility,” says Neillis. In Australia, Oliver’s shows air on commercial broadcaster Network Ten in prime time, then in another window will be on pay-TV platform Foxtel in a slot generally reserved for lifestyle fare.

“The only thing I don’t see happening is selling food programs to the big public broadcasters; they have their own,” says GRB’s Lolato.

He adds that sales to VOD and digital services are “definitely gaining.” Digital platforms are “no longer the tiny little cousin sitting at the big kids’ table; they’re starting to buy across all genres, including food.”

In his experience with pitching food programming to digital on-demand platforms, Twofour’s Appell has found that these services often want a strong central celebrity to be involved in the show. “They need it to be relatable either with an American host who people know or they want it to be about everyday food items like hamburgers and hotdogs. It’s not what Twofour does.”

Where Twofour’s content has taken off is with in-flight deals. “Whenever we have a new food show, nine times out of ten it ends up on British Airways or Virgin because they are relatable series for passengers,” says Appell. “Also, they’re quite high-end. We’re transporting viewers into a different world and behind the scenes of fabulous restaurants.”

Something all broadcasters like nowadays is getting a full digital package to support a program for 360-degree exploitation. Cooking series lend themselves to this quite naturally. “Our series have original webisodes, all the recipes, high-resolution art—when we sell our shows we sell the entire package,” says Gusto’s Knight, adding that the company’s food brands are designed to live in a multiplatform environment. “That’s an extremely powerful way to grow your viewer loyalty, through pushing out additional original content. For instance, One World Kitchen has 30 episodes, but it has 110 webisodes. It has 200 recipes, each with high-res art. It’s a full package for consumption on multiple platforms.”

And viewers are certainly ready to engage with their favorite cooking shows and culinary personalities in a variety of ways that extend far beyond the TV screen.

“Social media has become very important,” says Dynamic’s Nuccio, noting the volume of followers Bastianich has amassed across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “Ancillary products are also very important. Lidia has ten or more cookbooks out there that are a huge success. Today, without social media you’re missing a key piece of the equation.”

FMI’s Neillis agrees that social media has become an important asset for food-related franchises. “It amplifies the brand,” she says. “We’re working with a new talent, Silvia Colloca. She started as a blogger, then that blog became a book, then that book became a series. She also has a Twitter and an Instagram account.”

Instagram is a particular favorite among the culinary crowds, as its picture-based platform can showcase dishes in a purely visual form. Nigella Lawson has around 806,000 followers, and counting, on her Instagram, and Jamie Oliver a whopping 4.9 million.

“If you like Jamie Oliver, you [can engage with his brands] on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter—what a noise it’s all making!” Neillis says. “It really does make the brands bigger. It creates a two-way engagement so you have audiences who feel connected to the talent, and the talent can talk directly to the audiences.”

Following on the success that FMI has had with its existing food brands and personalities, including the bearded duo known as the Hairy Bikers, Neillis says the company is actively scouting for fresh talents. “We’re looking to make even more relationships with brands. We are always on the lookout for new talent and shows to complement the success of the ones that we already have.”

And she’s not the only one feeling confident about the ever-increasing appetite for food shows. “Because it’s such an important part of our society, we’re always going to have food programming,” asserts ABC Commercial’s Iffland. “There are endless ways to look at food. As we grow and evolve as a society, food will move along with that. Those changes will be reflected in our programming.”