If the ingredients in Food Network's success over the past 20 years were to be boiled down into recipe form, it would read something like this:
Â» 3 cups celebrity chefs
Â» 1Â½ cups genius branding
Â» 1Â½ cups fortuitous timing
Â» 1 cup community-building
Â» Â¾ cup positivity
Â» 2 heaping tablespoons passion
Â» Dash of luck
The Scripps Networks Interactive cabler, which marks the 20th anniversary of its formal launch on Nov. 23, 1993, has whipped all those elements into a TV souffle -- a 24/7 meal that is light and tasty for the viewer but a complex operation for its cooks.
The channel that was once given away to cable operators for free was perfectly timed to capitalize on the enormous growth of popular interest in food, cooking, chefs and restaurateurs. Food Network has blossomed during the past decade into a top 10 basic cable powerhouse, one that has seemingly endless opportunities for brand extensions, from the monthly magazine that is a joint venture with Hearst Corp. to its voluminous website to all manner of merchandise.
Food Network is now the profit engine of its parent company, a taste-maker in food trends (kale! quinoa! kohlrabi!) and a career-maker for foodie personalities of all flavors. Gourmands may turn up their nose at Food Network's "gameshows," but there is no disputing the impact the channel has had on the nation's eating and dining habits.
"It's a virtuous circle," says 10-year Scripps vet Brooke Johnson, president of Food Network since 2004, as well as the Cooking Channel topper. "People are more interested in food and that makes them more interested in Food Network, which makes people more interested in all kinds of foods. And unlike a lot of cable networks out there, we really are experts in what we do. We really are on the bleeding edge working with the best chefs in the world."
Food Network occupies a uniquely huge niche in the world of lifestyle cablers for the simple reason that everyone eats. That means the sky's the limit for potential target audiences for its programs, which range from competition-reality shows to exotic travelogues to traditional how-to shows. At the core of every program is a celebration of culinary skills -- a movement fostered just as the network was getting off the ground by food minds ranging from Alice Waters to Martha Stewart to Anthony Bourdain.
"Cooking used to be a means to an end," says Susie Fogelson, senior VP of marketing and brand strategy for Food Network and Cooking Channel. "Now it's a form of self-expression and creativity. Planning meals, preparing meals, shopping for meals has all become a great creative outlet for people. It's no longer a chore."
There's also a level of accessibility with food-related programming, from non-pretentious personalities like Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee, who are not averse to using packaged ingredients for convenience's sake, to "Iron Chef"-level talents like Cat Cora and Michael Symon.
"Being into food used to be more of a fancy big-city phenomenon," Johnson says. "That's where most of our chefs came from. Food Network helped expose the fun and excitement and the broad array of what food could be to the entire country. Now there's not many towns you can go to where you can't find a little Asian fusion. That's been a tipping point for us."
Bob Tuschman, Food's g.m. and senior VP of programming, calls it a "democratization" movement that has been spurred in part by technology and the ease with which people can learn about new foods, restaurants and cooking techniques. "Part of our approach has been to open the door wide and let everybody know that they're welcome here," he says.
Fogelson notes that digital media has aided this effort in many ways, from easy access to information and recipes to making once-hard-to-find ingredients available by mail order.