Monday February 22, 2010
Scripps, the owner of the Food Network, plans to turn on the Cooking Channel on Memorial Day, May 31, this year, enhancing its position in the category of kitchen programming. Before meetings with advertisers, the company is announcing half a dozen series for the channel on Friday, including new ones starring Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray. It might as well be called Food Network, the Sequel.
About two years ago, when the company started considering a second culinary channel, “the advertiser demand for Food was outstripping the audience growth,” Jon Steinlauf, the senior vice president for ad sales for Scripps Networks, said this week. “Therefore, creating a second channel started making more sense.”
The Cooking Channel, which is a replacement for Fine Living Network, FLN, a low-rated lifestyle channel, was announced last fall. At that time, Scripps said the channel would focus on information and instructional programming, much as the Food Network did before it gravitated toward higher-rated reality competitions like “The Next Food Network Star.” In recent months, Scripps has altered its plans for the second channel to include more entertaining fare.
“We listened to the audience and realized they weren’t necessarily saying they just wanted more instruction or more reality or more travel shows. They just wanted more,” said Michael Smith, the general manager of the Cooking Channel.
The craving for food programming is insatiable, Scripps executives like to say. (They rarely pass up opportunities for food puns; the first press release for the Cooking Channel said that “the time has come for us to have our cake and eat it, too.”) The ratings were up markedly for the Food Network last year, and shows set in kitchens have flourished on other channels.
“When you see Fox lining up its third Gordon Ramsay cooking show in prime time, I think food’s arrived as a mainstream genre,” Mr. Steinlauf said.
Naturally, Scripps wants to capture as much market share as it can. “If there are 1.2 rating points available for food programming, we want to be able to get the 0.9 on Food and the 0.3 on the Cooking Channel,” he said. “For this to be a good business for Scripps, we have to be able to grow the combined audience for these channels.”
Mirrored channels are not unprecedented on cable, where further fragmentation seems certain. ESPN has ESPN2, MTV has MTV2, and CNN has HLN, formerly called Headline News. Mr. Smith says he expects the Cooking Channel’s core viewers will be the ones he calls “hyper-passionate fans” of Food — the recipe bloggers, the Yelp reviewers, the amateur chefs.
“It’s all those people we saw during Cablevision,” said Cindy McConkey, a Scripps spokeswoman, referring to Scripps’ protracted fight with the cable distributor over higher subscriber fees for the Food Network. Thousands of fans flooded Cablevision with complaints when the network was removed from the distributor’s lineup in January, reinforcing the view that it had amassed a major following.
Will those followers want to watch a second channel?
On the Food Network, “there’s a lot of things we just don’t have time to cover,” Mr. Smith said. As implausible as that may sound, he makes a strong case for it.
As the Food Network’s ratings have risen, its definition of success for new shows has changed accordingly, squeezing out space for niche shows. That is where programmers at the Cooking Channel say their opportunity lies. The new channel will have room for programs about alcoholic beverages, brunch, low-calorie eating, and food history, among other topics. A broad range of instructional shows during the day will give way to more shows driven by storytelling at night.
Ms. Ray, the celebrity chef turned talk show host, will headline “A Week in a Day,” a one-hour show about stocking up on the week’s meals. Mr. Flay will be the host of a half-hour show, “Brunch With Bobby.” Emeril Lagasse will present “Fresh Food Fast,” a show that focuses on organic and locally grown ingredients. The channel is also importing several hosts from Food Network Canada, including Chuck Hughes, Roger Mooking and Laura Calder.
The Cooking Channel will cross-pollinate some programming with the Food Network. It is contemplating a postgame show for “The Next Food Network Star,” and an instructional series, “Cook Like an Iron Chef.”
Scripps will package the Cooking Channel and the Food Network when it sells upfront ads this spring.
The switch from FLN to Cooking, originally planned for the third quarter, is now timed for Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer. The company says it will conduct a marketing campaign for the new channel a few months after the debut. Already, Scripps is scheduling more food programming on FLN to better prepare viewers for the switch.
While the roughly 40 advertisers that paid in advance for FLN inventory this season have the option to withdraw their ads from the Cooking Channel, “no one has said no yet,” said Karen Grinthal, who oversees the food category of ad sales for Scripps.
Ms. Grinthal said Scripps would release a “tool kit of solutions” for Cooking Channel advertisers shortly. It will outline ways to integrate brands within the channel’s programming: for example, a customized half-hour series called “From the Kitchens of” featuring an advertiser’s recipes. The series, which would be produced on a limited basis, would be “in the network’s voice but with the advertiser very clearly exposed,” Ms. Grinthal said.
“So much of this comes down to having a brand environment,” Mr. Steinlauf said. “People habitually go to the destinations rather than the one-offs. And advertisers like the destinations. They like the comfort of knowing that their ad schedule will be wrapped up in this food environment.”