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Commentary : TV FOOD NETWORK: THE DEMOGRAPHICS ARE A FEAST FOR HUNGRY EYES

June 04, 1995|LYNN ELBER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

At 8 p.m., it's wild mushroom quiche, grilled halibut with fennel onion sauce and a side of ratatouille.

An hour later, we're ready for a dessert smorgasbord of chocolate toffee trifle, meringue torte and marbled chocolate pecan bar. Surely there's room for a midnight snack: bring on the focaccia!

Welcome to the TV Food Network, the food addict's heaven--or hell. It's a glowing neon "EATS" sign perched within your television set, a buttery siren song luring you into a 24-hour, feast-o-rama world.

Friends are here, the hosts and ghosts of cooking shows past and present. Stars like Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and the late James Beard. And newcomers Emeril Lagasse, a.k.a. "the engagin' Cajun," and suave David Rosengarten.

The cable channel is nothing if not well-rounded. There's food industry news, nutrition and health facts, restaurant profiles and even celebrities strutting their culinary stuff with a well-fed-looking Robin Leach.

Tune in for the latest on the return of Diet Coke hunk Lucky Vanous, plans for new mini- M&Ms or contaminated food warnings. Hear about the week's best produce buys, trendiest cuisines and hottest new cookbooks.

And no gustatory snobbism, please. Menus range from the down-home Cheesy Tuna Macaroni to the rarefied heights of fennel and blue cheese pizza and goose cassoulet.

Launched in November, 1993, by a partnership of Continental Cablevision and other major companies, the channel reaches nearly 13 million homes (some but not all cable companies in Southern California offer the channel.)

Eight hours of programming run each weeknight and are repeated throughout the day. The 60-minute "Food News and Views," hosted by Rosengarten and Donna Hanover (wife of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani), is on around the dinner hour. "Getting Healthy," a viewer call-in show with Dr. Lou Aronne and Gayle Gardner, follows. "TV Diners," which spotlights restaurants nationwide, is next with hosts Nina Griscom and Alan Richman.

The rest of the schedule is given over to original cooking shows, including "The Essence of Emeril," "Taste with David Rosengarten," "Nathalie Dupree Cooks" and "The Dessert Show With Debbi Fields" (of cookie fame).

There's also one daily classic rerun featuring the likes of Child, Beard or Dionne Lucas, considered the Yoda of TV cooking teachers.

Despite its relatively small audience, the TV Food Network has attracted major sponsors, says Reese Schonfeld, president of the New York-based channel.

"I've just come back from a lunch where we signed with one of America's largest food companies that bought on six cable services ... and every one of the other five has more than 60 million homes," Schonfeld says.

Ah, but how many others offer such a precise niche audience? When General Mills or Del Monte advertises on the TV Food Network, they know they're reaching dedicated noshers.

They are aware, too, they're getting a largely female crowd--women make up 77% of the TV Food Network's adult audience, according to first-quarter 1995 figures from Nielsen Media Research.

The majority of those women work, according to Nielsen.

Research shows that prime time for the TV Food Network's female audience tilts toward bedtime for most other viewers: "Our best hours are 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.," says Schonfeld.

That's after women come home from work, make dinner, play with the kids, get them to bed and then finally put their feet up, he says.

Only then can visions of cassoulet cooked by someone else dance in their heads. Such devotion to the culinary arts is appreciated, if not shared, by Schonfeld. The veteran broadcaster who helped found CNN and was its first president clearly is bemused by foodie passion.

So how did he become TV's emperor of eats? Schonfeld offers a brief lesson in journalism and life: "I'm just an old newsman. As you get older and older you move further and further to the back of the newspaper, and I'm on the food pages. At least I'm not in the shipping news."

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