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Cooking shows quest for context.


Ming Tsai is roughing it on a hardy lobster boat in Gloucester, Mass., wearing waterproof boots, thick workmen's gloves and squinting out at the traps bobbing in the harbor.

This is neither the costume nor the setting you'd expect for a Television Food Network chef. But this time, before stir-frying this episode's Singapore-style black-pepper lobster, he must catch the crustacean first.

The camera rolls as Tsai painstakingly hauls in the traps and unloads the lobsters, gingerly snapping elastic bands around their claws before storing them in saltwater tanks. In fact, the show's half-hour is almost over before Tsai takes to the kitchen to fry his catch.

Tsai's new show, "Ming's Quest," epitomizes the latest trend in America's food and cooking shows, where the focus tends to be on showmanship, entertainment, travel and adventure. Cooking, sometimes, is merely the sidebar.

"Viewers today need to have a context for their recipes," said Eileen Opatut, Food Network's senior vice president of production, programming and operations.

"People got tired of the same-old, same-old person standing behind the kitchen counter cooking. We talked to our consumers, and what they were really interested in were stories about the food itself, people and their relationships with food, and strong personalities who could be both teachers and entertainers."

So this fall, the new food shows premiering on the Food Network include "Ming's Quest" and "Melting Pot," where chefs explore the stories and cuisines of five different countries. Public Broadcasting Service is also offering "Nick Stellino's Family," which centers on the Los Angeles chef's Italian cooking and culture.

Food programmers say the shows have become more varied in recent years because the genre's audience has grown in size and diversity. Thirty years ago, cooking-show audiences were mostly female. Today, the genre's audience includes men, minorities and younger people who may not necessarily love to cook but enjoy watching, nonetheless.

Just three years ago, more than half of Food Network's audience was over 55. Today, the average age of the network's audience is 39, and the majority are between 35 and 54. Its audience is also 45% to 50% male, and younger viewers increasingly are tuning in.

These new food shows also have been drawing more viewers in recent years. Food Network launched in 1993 with 6 million viewers tuning into its six cooking show series. Now, the network has 50.5 million viewers and 25 original series in its lineup. PBS always has had six to 10 cooking shows on its schedule.

Food Network's Opatut said competition with other sources of information has also altered the nature of cooking shows. With audiences able to find recipes or download videos of cooking demonstrations online, the television shows have had to adjust.

And the plethora of cable channels today has created a much savvier television audience that expects to be entertained in an original fashion--even on cooking shows. Besides its popular culinary cooking competition show, "Iron Chef," Food Network will debut some new personality-driven shows this fall. B. Smith, owner of the popular New York City restaurant bearing her name, is the host of her own lifestyle and cooking show, and Jamie Oliver, an effervescent young British chef, will strip gourmet cooking to the basics on "Naked Chef"--where the food, not the chef, is nude.

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