At 6 a.m. on Nov. 22, 1993, a handful of early-risers turned on their TVs and were greeted by Donna Hanover and David Rosengarten, co-hosts of a show called Food News & Views on a cable channel called the TV Food Network.
At 7 a.m., Robin Leach, formerly of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, anchored the call-in show Talking Food. For the next 22 hours, the two programs alternated with each other, along with two airings of Getting Healthy with former sportscaster Gayle Gardner.
Now, almost 15 years later, the Food Network is going strong. In 2007, it had 90 million subscribers, which, according to Derek Baine, cable analyst with SNL Kagan, puts it on a par with such cable stalwarts as ESPN, Nickelodeon and MTV.
Since its inception, Food Network has spawned such larger-than-life personalities as Emeril Lagasse, Iron Chef's Chairman Kaga and Rachael Ray; it has introduced new exclamations ("Bam!," "Allez Cuisine!" and "Yum-O!" respectively), and taken cooking shows from the rarefied world of public television into the very heart of Middle America. It has changed the country's food scene, and it has transformed itself.
Mario Batali was there at the beginning. "That first year, I was a guest on Robin Leach's show," the chef-restaurateur-author recalled. Batali also appeared on Chef du Jour, "a sort of testing ground for potential TV chefs," and the game show Ready ... Set ... Cook! Molto Mario, a show that put both chef and network on the culinary map, debuted in 1996. Said Batali, "We both made each other famous."
Molto Mario stopped production in 2004, though episodes still air on Monday mornings. Although Batali is still one of the network's five Iron Chefs, his next TV venture, Spain ... On the Road Again, a series about Spanish cuisine, will air this fall on Public Broadcasting Service.
Lagasse, once the network's brightest star, is also facing change. In November, it was announced that Emeril Live! which premiered in 1997, won't be filming new episodes. The show was undeniably groundbreaking, but the format is no longer the network's stock in trade.
"The dump-and-stir is over," Batali said, using industry parlance for the straight cooking show. Indeed, if you look at the current prime-time lineup, you'll see what the Food Network considers the Next Big Thing: reality.
While Fox has American Idol and CBS has The Amazing Race, Food Network brings you Throwdown With Bobby Flay, in which the celebrated Southwestern chef shows up unexpectedly to challenge a lesser-known chef or home cook in his or her specialty.
Ace of Cakes follows the travails of extreme baker Duff Goldman and the staff of his Baltimore cake shop. Each episode of Dinner Impossible finds chef Robert Irvine confronted with some seemingly impossible task.
According to Marc Summers, the executive producer of Dinner Impossible as well as host of the show Unwrapped, the transition from dump-and-stir to reality was inevitable. "They have to grow," he said. "Look at VH1 - they have no videos anymore. It's the same with the Food Network. They have to move beyond cooking."
The gold standard among reality shows are those that have a narrative arc to compel viewers to tune in each week. "A classic problem with cooking shows," Baine said, "is that they aren't sticky. When they're not serialized, if you miss one, you don't feel like you missed anything." Which is why, in 2005, the network introduced The Next Food Network Star in which a dozen or so contestants compete in various cooking and hosting contests for the chance to host their own show.
One thing about the show is that at the same time it garners ratings, it primes viewers for whatever new show the winner hosts. Guy Fieri, the bleached-blond surfer-dude winner of Season 2 has gone on to host Guy's Big Bite and the very popular Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.
If dump-and-stir no longer rules prime time, it is still the heart of daytime. "After dinner, after work, our audience is looking to be entertained," said Bob Tushman, the network's vice president of programming, "but during the day they are looking for cooking information."
Rachael Ray's 30 Minute Meals is on three times every weekday. Close behind are Paula Deen's Home Cooking, Giada de Laurentiis' Everyday Italian, Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa and Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade Cooking.
These women could hardly appeal to more diverse audiences. According to Tushman, "They inhabit different houses on the same very big block."
Erica Marcus writes for Newsday.
On the air
The Food Network broadcasts from 7 a.m. to 5 a.m. on weekends, 9:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays. That means 141 1/2 hours of programming each week. Nearly half of that time, 65 1/2 hours, is filled by shows, most of them repeats, hosted by seven personalities. Here's how they stack up:
Rachael Ray: 14 hours
Alton Brown: 12 1/2 hours
Bobby Flay: 9 1/2 hours
Paula Deen: 8 1/2 hours
(Tie) Giada de Laurentiis and Ina Garten: 7 1/2 hours each
Sandra Lee: 6 hours