Food Network Tries a New Recipe: Junk Food and Kitchen Competitions

The Food Network’s coming out of a tough year during which viewership dropped 7 percent and embattled host Paula Deen’s career melted like butter on a hot biscuit. The channel’s answer: a new line of programming stuffed with the high-energy, high-chaos reality-TV format of gladiatorial cooking.

In the new series Rewrapped, which premières April 21, contestants first try to re-create iconic junk foods such as Twinkies and Pepperidge Farm’s Milano cookies, and then mince, grind, or otherwise make use of the original snack food in a dish. Joey Fatone, onetime star of boy band ’N Sync, will host the show. Marc Summers of the Food Network’s Unwrapped, a show about snack food brands like Sour Patch Kids and Sun Chips, will be the judge.

Featuring such popular food brands as SpaghettiOs and Entenmann’s in Rewrapped creates sponsorship opportunities for the cable channel, which obviously caters to food-obsessed consumers. “We have many creative opportunities for branded food products within our programming, where brands can be incorporated within a larger theme or challenge,” said Karen Grinthal, senior vice president of ad sales for the Food Network and Cooking Channel, in an e-mail. Still, executives seem unwilling to fully abandon the learning-from-the-pros ethos that made earlier waves of personalities—from Emeril Lagasse to Rachael Ray and, yes, Paula Deen—into stars. The advertisers, Grinthal said, are interested in both creative scenarios of a show like Rewrapped as well as the opportunities “to show consumers new ideas for how they can add a twist to their daily menus.” Many of the brands in the new show are made by companies Food Network already works with.

Sponsorship aside, the other benefit of featuring these products is nostalgia. “Food can be a glimpse into our past, bringing up emotions of what we enjoyed and the way we grew up,” said Bob Tuschman, Food Network’s general manager and senior vice president of programming, in a statement. “Viewers will get to relive their childhood with these classic brands.”

Allen Salkin, author of From Scratch: Inside the Food Network, sees the junk-food cooking as a sign of decline for a channel that once minted celebrity chefs and acted as something of a middle-brow vanguard for raising America’s culinary knowledge. Now, he says, executives are just “regurgitating old show ideas and presenting new ways to make ourselves fatter and sicker. … The network would rather push Twinkies, a snack food that went bankrupt, than take a risk with something food-forward like, say, a vegetarian cooking show.”

There isn’t much in the way of non-gimmicky kitchen instruction to be found in the Food Network’s other new programs for the spring. America’s Best Cook, for example, will pit home cooks coached by chefs against one another in competition. Kitchen Casino, meanwhile, will feature four chefs competing with ingredients randomized by slot machines, poker, and roulette-inspired games. And then there’s Beat Bobby Flay, in which two cooks compete to face off against the famed New York chef.

Original? Not particularly. But Beat Bobby Flay attracted more than 1.3 million during its première on March 6—above the channel’s primetime average, according to data from Horizon Media. “They’re doing everything right with the [Food Network] brand except making good television,” says Salkin. “But maybe it doesn’t matter anymore.”

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