Like a lot of old-line media companies, E.W.Scripps Co. (SSP ) is having problems. Its 20 newspapers are battling circulation and ad declines as readers and advertisers move to the Web. Which is why the outfit's decision in 1997 to gobble up the Food Network now seems so prescient. Food's performance, along with that of its sister channel, Home & Garden Television, has helped the stock rise 22% since August.
Even better, the Food Network is increasingly beloved by that most prized demographic: the 18-to-34 set. Typical of the breed is Graham A. Kates, a 21-year-old political science major at Binghamton University. He and his dozen housemates just can't get enough of the sultry Giada DeLaurentiis, the Everyday Italian host, whose revealing outfits have helped win her a devoted following on college campuses around the country. "It's not the cooking appeal," says Kates, "so much as it's her appeal." He and his friends record the show regularly so little things like classes don't get in the way.
Needless to say, Scripps is loving the attention from younger viewers. Attracting them is crucial given the graying of Food's core audience of upscale women aged 25 to 54. Still, like any media company eager for a younger audience, the cable channel, which boasts 90 million subscribers, is being careful to avoid alienating its longtime viewers. "The Food Network isn't trying to become MTV," says Scripps Networks Executive Vice-President Burton F. Jablin. "That would be a big mistake." With the channel now contributing nearly 40% of the cable TV unit's revenues, Scripps's challenge is finding the right mix of programming for Mom and the kids.
How to account for the younger generation's abiding interest in all things culinary? Putting engaging hosts on the screen is a major part of it. The biggest star in the Food Network kitchen, of course, is Rachael Ray. Oh sure, the indefatigable Ray may seem a tad overexposed. But her anti-Martha approach—quick meals that anyone can prepare—appeals not just to time-pressed parents but also to kids who might be intimidated by the perfectionism of you-know-who.
Young girls seem to be cooking more than the previous generation did. Trendspotters say the organic craze, as well as all the talk about an obesity epidemic, is prompting many youngsters to take responsibility for eating better. "They're making decisions in grocery stores," says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, who runs the entertainment marketing division at Starcom, a Chicago media-buying firm. "There's a lot of talk about health and wellness among kids." College guys, meanwhile, scan cooking shows to pick up tips to impress dates. "Any time a girl sees guys cooking something delicious," says Kates, "it definitely helps out."
Then there's Kelsey Brown. The Knoxville (Tenn.) eighth grader loves to see how the likes of candy, pizza, and hot dogs are made on the more-than-you-really-need-to-know show Unwrapped. "Sometimes it's kinda gross," says Kelsey. "One time I was watching a show on, like, Cheetos or chips, and I was, like, Ooh, I'm not sure I like that.'"
Although Scripps isn't remaking the Food Network for a younger audience, it is letting advertisers know that teens and twentysomethings are avid viewers. "Having the younger end makes sure we stay young," says Brooke Bailey Johnson, whose own kids assured her Food was cool when she became its president in 2004. She has won over such youth-oriented advertisers as McDonald's (MCD ), Michelob, and Monster Worldwide (MNST ). And Sony Pictures and Paramount hawk such fare as Talladega Nights and Elizabethtown on Food, which now is talking with DreamWorks Animation (DWA ), Warner Bros. (TWX ), and Disney (DIS ) about 2007 releases targeting the younger demo.
Yes, the bet on the Food Network looks plenty savvy—especially if HGTV suffers amid the housing slump. In the first nine months of '06, Scripps's newspaper operating revenues dropped 0.1%, to $536.3 million. Without the TV properties, which helped boost overall revenues by 18%, to $1.8 billion, the 129-year-old company would be a less nourishing investment.
By Joseph Weber