This week, Rachael Ray enters the pantheon of America's highest-paid cookbook authors, signing a multimillion-dollar, multibook deal that is one of the largest in cookbook history.
Ray is a food television phenomenon. A perky 35-year-old home cook with no professional credentials, she has such good chemistry with the camera that her "30 Minute Meals" is the Food Network's top-rated show. It's particularly appealing to Madison Avenue's favored demographic, the impressionable younger adult, age 18 to 49.
Ray personifies everything people love about food TV: She's charismatic, accessible, upbeat and she never stops moving. She also represents what rankles members of the food world's intelligentsia: There's no attempt at culinary excellence.
"Food Network has made a decision to go after the lowest common denominator audience," says Darra Goldstein, editor of the scholarly quarterly Gastronomica and a professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. "Even with this audience, there is so much more that could be done."
But this is not about cooking. Research shows that "the job of America is to get out of cooking, not to spend more time cooking," says Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group, a Chicago-based company that collects and analyzes consumer data. "Food television is entertainment."
Food Network now entertains an average of 550,000 households during prime-time each day, a 16% increase above last year and a 33% increase above the network's prime-time audience in 2002. Its overall ratings put it well ahead of E!, ESPN2, Cartoon and TV Land among 18- to 49-year-old viewers.
In the last three years, Food Network has expanded its reach from 54 million to 84 million households, enough for the 10-year-old network to be considered a universally available channel. It now delivers more than 800 hours of original food programming a year.
But food television is not just one channel, and Ray isn't the only star: She's at the head of an outsized class of celebrity TV chefs who dominate bookstore cookbook displays nationwide. And as the demand for food programming has grown, both the volume of shows and the outlets for them have multiplied.
Anyone who grew up watching Julia Child knows that public television was the birthplace of food TV. Now public television stations across the country broadcast more than 71 cooking shows. That's a 69% increase from the 42 shows they offered three years ago. There are as much as 11.5 hours of chopping, dicing and baking across major markets.
"Food is the most popular genre of programming we make," says Cynthia Fenneman, president and chief executive of American Public Television, a programming distributor to public television stations. APT shows such as "America's Test Kitchen" and Lidia Bastianich's "Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen" are viewed on average by about twice the audience as Food Network's top programs, according to Nielsen NSI ratings.
But you can also tune into Style Network for a dose of Nigella Lawson's sultry sensuality or Bravo for "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," on which the fab five never fail to prepare something splendid. Food entertainment has even made it to network TV: NBC spent millions of dollars trying to turn chef Rocco DiSpirito into a prime-time star with "The Restaurant."
Food as escape
But if most of food TV isn't about cooking, what's really going on?
Food is an antidote to modern life, a comfortable place to go, an escape, says Brooke Bailey Johnson, Food Network's president. "Food is pleasant, and it's made by pleasant people," she says, noting that people can talk about food without offending anyone.
The striking thing, Johnson adds, "is that the audience cuts across every age. It's families watching." During prime-time evening hours, as many men watch Food Network as women. Children and teenagers are avid viewers.
That's why Food Network's advertising revenue has soared from $150 million in 2002 to an estimated $225 million in 2004, according to Kagan Research.
"It's 'least-objectionable-programming,' " says Jon Mandel, co-chief executive of the advertising buying firm MediaCom, who points out that it is snagging top-dollar car and pharmaceutical ads. "It's being considered for more than food ads because so many different types of people are watching. And it has the potential to be bigger."
Devon Espinosa is one person who sees food TV as more than just entertainment. During his childhood in Arleta, in the San Fernando Valley, dining out for Espinosa was a trip to Numero Uno for a pizza. Home cooking often meant tearing open a box.
Still, during his years at James Monroe High School, Espinosa dreamed of becoming a chef, a true "culinary artist." Chefs are his heroes, he explains; they are the stars of his favorite television shows.