Tag Archives: Food Network

The Foolishness of “The Next Food Network Star”

One of the first things you need to understand about the Food Network Star competition is that cooking ability is the least important of the qualities the Food Network seeks from its contestants.

Really.

Television’s Food Network, which The Curmudgeon generally enjoys even though he has the palate of a six-year-old boy, launches an annual and highly artificial competition to attempt to create its own new “star.” There’s nothing wrong with the program or the concept – except that the contestants are flawed, the challenges are flawed, the judging is flawed, and the results, because of all those flaws, are ridiculous.

The contestants are seriously flawed. Have you seen any great chefs – or even any particularly good chefs – compete for the distinction of becoming the next Food Network “star”? Have you seen any chefs who would last even two weeks on Bravo’s Top Chef? Any chefs whose food you’d be willing to drive twenty miles for if they opened a restaurant two towns down from you? The Curmudgeon thinks not.

So if it’s not about the cooking, what’s it about? Personality. On the Food Network, the emphasis is on personality, not cooking skills. Despite this, have you seen any interesting personalities compete on Food Network Star? (Hint: obnoxious is not the same as interesting. Nor is quirky. Nor is weird.) No again.

The challenges are flawed as well. Actually, they’re more like stunts – cheap stunts that have nothing to do with identifying either a cooking or a television talent. Winning these competitions is by no means an indicator of someone’s likelihood of succeeding as a Food Network “personality.” Most of the contests ask participants to cook and present things in ways they would never, ever do if they had their own Food Network program. It’s sort of like asking actors auditioning for roles in Romeo & Juliet to prove they can sing and dance. It’s nice if the performers have those talents but there’s not a whole lot of singing and dancing going on among the Capulets and the Montagues.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Food Network Star is the judging – starting with the premise that the people doing the judging are qualified to determine who would be good on television. Let us start with The Curmudgeon’s least-favorite judge: Food Network executive Bob Tuschman. This is an easy one: if Tuschman was such an expert on what makes for good television he would never, ever allow himself to be an on-air judge. He must be a Food Network boss, though – a boss whose subordinates are too weak, too inept, or too subservient to tell him he has no business on television, that seeing him and listening to him must surely drive people to their remotes in search of a nice and safe Law & Order rerun. Is there any less appealing person on television today – anywhere? (Okay, maybe Sean Hannity.) Only one person benefits from his participation on this program: his co-judge, Susie Fogelson, who is no slouch in the obnoxious department herself but who, compared to The Tusch (and yes, The Curmudgeon is aware of the other use of this term, and yes, he believes it applies quite wonderfully in this case), is practically Mother Teresa.

A twist in this year’s competition is that the contestants are divided into groups coached by current Food Network “stars.” The only actual chef among those coaches is Bobby Flay, who has restaurants around the country and presumably once earned his living in the kitchen instead of in the board room and on television. Flay has a new venture, Bobby’s Burger Palace, that suggests that neither quality nor service matter much to this particular celebrity; the food is perhaps a half-step above that of McDonald’s and the service would benefit from a few lessons from Mickey D’s. The second celebrity coach is Alton Brown, who made his Food Network bones on his show Good Eats. Brown was terrific on that show, and he’s very good on Iron Chef, too. So how is it that a guy who’s so good on two shows is such a complete and utter tool on everything else into which the Food Network tries so awkwardly to wedge him? It’s not enough for him to judge; he seems determined to do so with a grim sense of self-importance and self-righteousness that sends The Curmudgeon running for his remote. The third celebrity coach is Giada DeLaurentiis, another performer cruelly forced on the viewing public by the Food Network. Let’s be honest: if she wasn’t adorable, wasn’t willing to show her cleavage, and didn’t have a mouth that looked like it was made to hold something the size and shape of a large cucumber, she wouldn’t have a television show. She’s certainly not employed by the Food Network for her culinary expertise.

The result of this great mess is…a great mess. The program has produced one legitimate star: Guy Fieri, whose Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, one of The Curmudgeon’s favorite programs on television, seems to constitute most of the Food Network’s prime time schedule these days.

But the other “next” stars? For people who are supposed to be very special, they’ve proven to be very ordinary. Here’s a list of the other (non-Fieri) “next star” winners:

Jeff Mauro
Aarti Sequeira
Melissa d’Arabian
Aaron McCargo, Jr.
Amy Finley
The Hearty Boys

See any “stars” on this list? The Curmudgeon doesn’t. See people who even still have programs on the Food Network? The Curmudgeon sees a few, but don’t you think they all, if they’re such stars, should have their own Food Network program? Of those few who still have programs, do you see any who have prime-time programs? Or are they all relegated to Saturday morning and other times when the network draws about eight viewers?

The reality is that the Food Network is staging a contest for potential “stars” of the very kinds of programs it doesn’t want to air anymore: shows where someone stands behind a stove and demonstrates how to cook. Gone is Emeril Lagasse, who could be a bit of a clown but who also could cook up a storm. Gone is Mario Batali, who probably knows more about cooking and food than anyone who’s ever been on the Food Network. Gone is the oh-so-serious but oh-so-skilled Sara Moulton. Gone are Jamie Oliver and Tyler Florence, replaced – especially in the network’s prime-time schedule – by contests (Iron Chef, the cupcake sissy, Chopped, Food Network Star, and the extraordinarily obnoxious Sweet Genius); the insufferable Robert Irvine, speaking badly to and about people and pretending that failure is imminent even though every viewer knows failure is not possible; and Guy Fieri’s wonderful Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.

Meanwhile, programs that show people how to cook are relegated to Saturday morning and weekday mornings and afternoons – when we’re all asleep or at work. There you’ll find Rachael Ray, who never appealed very much to The Curmudgeon but who now looks better and better, in comparison to other Food Network fare, with every passing year; the phony-as-a-three-dollar-bill Paula Deen; and of course, the wonderful Ina Garten. This is where the next Food Network star will end up – but not for very long, because history suggests that the next Food Network star will quickly become an unemployed former Food Network star. Of course, at the Food Network, The Tusch would probably declare Jacques Pepin to be unemployable.

Maybe the math suggests that producing one Guy Fieri in eight years makes it all worthwhile. But if it doesn’t, then the Food Network is guilty of deceiving viewers into thinking it’s going to do something substantial with its new “stars” and then relegating them to middle-of-the-night time slots before tossing them aside like yesterday’s news. Last year’s “star,” Jeff Mauro, hosts one of the worst programs the Food Network has aired since it parted ways with Robin Leach: a show about – can you believe this? – cooking hamburgers! The only reasonable explanation for this waste of time is that The Tusch and Susie came to realize what an abysmal choice they made and are now distancing themselves from poor Jeff, who’s probably a few months away from working the line at a T.G.I. Friday’s – or maybe Bobby’s Burger Palace.

The premise of Food Network Star is that it’s a competition between (typically) young cooks with personality, the assumption being that if they’re great cooks and have great personalities, you have the makings of a Food Network star. The reality, though, is that it presents no great chefs and no great personalities and no one with a meaningful chance of becoming a future Food Network star. Instead, the network is suckering those poor contestants into thinking they might one day grow up to be a Bobby Flay or a Guy Fieri – or, if the curves work out right, a Giada DeLaurentiis – and they’re suckering Food Network viewers into watching a contest in which the winner wins nothing at all.

Mini-Rumination: Woe is the Food Network

How bitter a pill must it be for the people at the Food Network that Bravo’s “Top Chef” is the most popular cooking program on television?

Cable a la Carte Anyone?

When The Curmudgeon’s cable modem is down and his access to the internet disappears, he calls his cable company (Comcast) to register his dismay and seek help.  As often as not, entering his phone number – the mechanism the cable company uses to identify callers – elicits a message to the effect of “We’re experiencing an outage in your area.  Our technicians are working on the problem and your service should be restored shortly.”

The cable company’s technology is that good:  it can respond to The Curmudgeon’s question without him even posing it, armed with nothing more than his telephone number.  Pretty impressive.

When The Curmudgeon’s lack of service is not related to a general outage, he waits his turn briefly – for all of the complaints about cable companies’ poor service, he has never spent much time in “hold hell” – speaks to a technician, and by giving his name and address or telephone number, that technician can call up a screen on his computer and see a visual record of The Curmudgeon’s service (or lack thereof).

“Yes, Mr. Curmudgeon, I can see that your service is down.”  He can see it – from his end.  Without The Curmudgeon even telling him.  Again, very impressive.

In fact, the customer service representative can often see more.

“I see that your service is occasionally dropping off for a few minutes at a time.  Have you noticed that?”

Yes, Mr. Service Representative, The Curmudgeon has – and he’s not too happy about it.

Again, the cable company’s technology is that good:  it can see The Curmudgeon’s problem without him even explaining it, armed with nothing more than his telephone number.

When the service is running right and The Curmudgeon directs his clicker to a station number that features a premium cable channel – he does not subscribe to any premium cable channels – the screen is blank.  He’s not paying for it, so he doesn’t get it.

The cable company’s technology is that good:  it knows who’s watching, knows what they’re paying for and what they’re not, and is smart enough not to give him what isn’t his.  Seems pretty fair – and again, pretty impressive.

The cable company also offers a feature called “On Demand” (The Curmudgeon has seen this in homes other than his own; his particular cable package does not include this service).  By pressing a few buttons, a customer can summon any one of literally hundreds (or is it thousands?) of television programs and movies.  Some are free, some cost money.

The cable company’s technology is that good:  with a few clicks of a button, a customer can summon almost anything to his television screen.  The next month’s cable bill never includes a charge for a free program and never fails to bill you for what you purchased.

This gives rise to an obvious question:  if the cable company’s technology is this good, why can’t it sell its customers any networks we want, omit any networks we don’t want, and charge us only for what we choose?  Why is this not like a restaurant where you look at the menu, choose what you want, and then pay for what you choose?  Why can’t we have cable a la carte?  Why must we pay for the mac and cheese even though everyone knows we are lactose-sensitive?

The cable companies have been asked this question more than once, including by Congress.  They typically dismiss such inquiries, offering a mush-mouthed excuse about not having the technical capacity to do this.

We know this is nonsense.  And they know we know.  And they know we know they know.

On occasion, the cable companies will offer another explanation:  that unless they offer a broad range of programming that may include networks that some of their customers don’t want, new programming will never have an opportunity to break into the cable lineup.

While on the surface this may make seem plausible, it’s an argument that ultimately doesn’t pass the smell test.  New networks have always struggled to be offered by cable companies; some – the NFL Network comes to mind – even go to court to force cable companies to offer them.

But despite these struggles, new networks appear all the time – because those networks work at it.  (Or, as is increasingly the case, they are owned by the cable company and get a free ride.)

In the past, The Curmudgeon distinctly recalls commercials for a cable channel wannabe that beckoned, “Tell your cable operator you want E Entertainment television.”  That seemed to work out pretty well for the E people.  The same is true of MTV:  there may not be a cable system in the country that doesn’t offer MTV, and MTV’s campaign for acceptance – “I want my MTV” – may have been of a higher quality than any programming the network has ever offered and may be more memorable than anything that has been shown on its air since then with the possible exception of Adam Curry’s hair.

The Curmudgeon also recalls, in the past, his cable operator offering free weekend “previews” of premium cable networks, the theory apparently being that if we like what we see during a free weekend of Showtime or HBO, we might be willing to pay for those networks.  Nothing prevents cable operators from offering previews of aspiring cable networks to their viewers and then offering those viewers the option of subscribing to networks they like.  It’s called marketing, and it’s something most businesses do constantly instead of forcing unwanted products down their customers’ throats.

But cable companies don’t need to bother with such niceties.  They don’t offer their customers true choice in channel selection because they are mostly a monopoly, blessed with the official imprimatur of government (which permits them to lay their cables pretty much wherever they please) and they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do.  They offer a service and we can take it or leave it.  They offer products and we have to pay for them whether we want them or not.

Why must The Curmudgeon pay for Lifetime television for women?  Why must The Curmudgeon’s 79-year-old father pay for the Food Network when the only kitchen that interests him is run by Chef Boyardee?

We must tolerate this because cable operators are greedy and have made enough political contributions to persuade elected officials to turn a blind eye to their un-American approach to selling their products.  Consequently, they believe they can respond to customer complaints about prices and service by pointing to the variety of programming they offer – even if we don’t want all that variety.  Customers’ preferences do not matter at all; they have no place in the decision-making of avaricious cable company executives.  As much as cable companies despise their satellite television competition, they can always point to those competitors and tell us “If you don’t love us, you can always get a divorce and marry them” – even though satellite is not an option for many people.

There is a great tendency in our society – a tendency The Curmudgeon generally frowns upon – to declare that in such matters, we should “let the market decide.”  In this case, that seems appropriate:  the market – in this case, the public – should be permitted to vote with its dollars and patronage which cable networks should thrive and which should struggle or even die.  THAT is how markets are supposed to work.

But cable companies don’t need to worry about, or even think about, anything as insignificant as markets and customer choice and pleasing their customers.  They are monopolies, they have paid our elected representatives a lot of money to maintain that monopoly, and the customer be damned.