Anthony Bourdain's CNN Show Inspires Rush of New Culinary Series
Everyone from FYI to Travel Channel is looking to duplicate the success of 'Parts Unknown'
This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In the past decade, food-themed television has gone from Emeril Lagasse's "Bam!" to chefs bow-hunting for buffalo in the Arkansas backcountry. That colorful scene, from a recent episode of Nat Geo's Eric Greenspan Is Hungry, is not an outlier. It's part of an onslaught of new culinary series on a half-dozen cable networks and marks a major departure for the genre. Call it the Anthony Bourdain effect.
"The beautiful thing about food programming is the ability to be broad," says Tim Pastore, president of original programming and production at Nat Geo U.S., who also has ordered booze-centric Chug and six-part doc EAT. "It's a way to grab our core audience but also attract new viewers, to find a new demographic."
Bourdain, with his landmark No Reservations on Travel Channel, and Bizarre Eats' Andrew Zimmern laid the groundwork for food exploration on TV. And now that Bourdain is a CNN poster boy, nabbing Emmys and driving the struggling news net's biggest ratings with Parts Unknown, many are seeking to duplicate that success — including his former network. Travel launches Breaking Borders with Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio in 2015. The 13-episode order puts Voltaggio and journalist Mariana van Zeller in war-torn countries to resolve conflict through cuisine.
It's an evolved food TV landscape from the days of just Food Network and Bravo's Top Chef, admits Ross Babbit, senior vp programming and development at Travel Channel: "We want to convey the uniqueness of food and how culture is expressed in food. That's what you saw with Bourdain and Zimmern and now with Breaking Borders."
Food also is an obvious choice for upstart lifestyle networks like Esquire and FYI — both of which have made it a focus. "People are interested in shows that they can see themselves experiencing, as opposed to just passively watching," says Esquire originals head Matt Hanna, who has a Bourdain-produced offering in The Getaway. "Food is an equalizer, but making it relatable to people's everyday lives is the challenge. You want to create something that can be watched across all platforms."
FYI is being equally aggressive in the culinary space. The new A+E-owned network's culinary offerings skew toward comedy with things such as Epic Meal Empire, a cooking show-meets-Mythbusters. This is where execs see wide-open spaces for expansion. Coming at food from different points of view — be it humor or history, adventure and exploration, politics or hunting — allows for a broader audience.
"Most people don't actually want to be a renowned chef or the best baker, but they do want to taste the best noodles in Thailand or curry in India," adds Hanna. "It's all about giving viewers a visceral experience that immerses them in sounds, smells and tastes."