Emmys: Why Food Shows Struggle to Get on the Awards Menu

Jon Shapely/Esquire
'Best Bars in America'

Reality TV's biggest subgenre serves up caviar but usually comes back with an empty plate at the Emmys. Now, insiders reveal what could break through in the new Bourdain-and-booze era.

This story first appeared in the June 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Reality TV's kitchen seems to have no maximum occupancy. The food genre, unlike its singing-competition counterparts, has defied the notion of a saturation point: It now occupies more airtime and cultural bandwidth than ever.

But for all of its relevance, food TV has been relatively underrepresented at the Primetime Emmys. While Bravo's Top Chef scored a coup in 2010 — nabbing the reality competition title from that year's (and every year's) favorite, The Amazing Race — and Anthony Bourdain has seen his CNN series, Parts Unknown, score in the informational-series contest, food-free broadcast shows often dominate reality categories. The old guard's endurance (Top Chef, one of TV's most affluent-skewing series, still pulls in 2 million weekly viewers) throughout the massive spike in options has made it nearly impossible for other series to break through.

It's a landscape Julia Child never could have anticipated when she debuted The French Chef in 1963. Famous chefs now hold down multiple series; cooking-competition shows — there are 15 contending for an Emmy this year — have moved beyond showcasing only pros; and there's a growing thirst for formats that skip meals and go straight for cocktails. The result is a grand buffet that may have become simply too vast for TV Academy voters to digest in light of reality's overall glut of about 156 Emmy contenders. "Voters hardly ever leave their reality comfort zones," says one producer. "And this is the case across all the reality categories."

THR polled insiders to help sort through food TV's crowded contenders pool and uncover where the genre's best Emmy hopes may lie, even as it's stuffed with a dizzying array of new subgenres. Jokes one series producer, "The only thing left is for the audience to actually taste the food."

Top Chef's Padma Lakshmi

How Chef Stays on Top

Bravo's Top Chef has parlayed its consistency into category dominance, with co-host Padma Lakshmi emerging as America's culinary correspondent, reporting from the front lines of the food revolution. The Emmy nominee for outstanding reality host (alongside fellow master of ceremonies Tom Colicchio) has seen her show become one of the most influential brands in the food world. "As the show has grown and maintained its popularity, the caliber of contestants has really gone up," says Lakshmi, who currently is filming the series' 13th season (her 12th). "Top Chef has become so important to chefs that they'll take months off from work. Executive chefs will even give their employees paid leave. It's great publicity."

Nominated for outstanding reality competition for eight consecutive years (with the aforementioned win in 2010), Top Chef has been a TV Academy favorite. And, in addition to its own slate of spinoffs (Duels, Masters, Just Desserts), it sparked a competition trend on other networks. On the heels of its titular Food Network Star, cable's culinary hub has launched professional showdowns Chopped, Cutthroat Kitchen and Beat Bobby Flay — all eligible in the competition category. And Esquire Network, which debuted in 2013, has seen Knife Fight (starring Top Chef winner Ilan Hall) quickly become a network flagship.

"I think the show has been partly responsible for the way an entire generation of Americans thinks about food," adds Lakshmi, who cites Hall and dozens of other famous alums as feathers in Top Chef's cap. "Kids tell me they had an amuse-bouche contest at a sleepover or a quickfire challenge at their bar mitzvah." That kind of brand recognition is tough for even the sexiest upstart to outshine.

Broadcast Breakout Hopefuls

While food occupies two entire cable networks (Food Network, Cooking Channel) and fills hundreds of hours on more than a dozen others, on broadcast, only Fox has thrived in the culinary space. Following the success of his competition show Hell's Kitchen, British import Gordon Ramsay upped his reach on Fox with amateur tournament MasterChef and kidcentric spinoff MasterChef Junior. The amateur-chef trend easily is justified by ratings: MasterChef Junior is the only Big Four reality show to grow its audience during the 2014-15 season — and, with an average 2.2 rating among adults 18-49, it's TV's highest-rated food show. (That's one reason NBC made a play for a food program of its own with home-cook showdown Food Fighters.)

"The home-cooking concept has become a natural progression from merely 'demonstration television,' " says Endemol Shine USA unscripted TV president Eden Gaha, who oversees both MasterChef titles, with Junior now garnering significant Emmy buzz thanks to growing exposure. Gaha notes that Junior contestants are the first to be raised in a world of ubiquitous food TV. "We had a child contestant who didn't cook at all until they started watching MasterChef Junior."

Anthony Bourdain on Parts Unknown

The Power of Personalities

A cut above the typical reality celebrity, the biggest stars of food TV build large personal fan bases. Thanks to restaurants, fruitful publishing careers and, in many cases, multiple TV projects, individuals often can launch a series on name alone. Just look at Bourdain. The rogue globe-trotter left Travel Channel for CNN in 2012 after nearly a decade. A fan favorite who boasts more than 2 million Twitter followers, Bourdain toted his No Reservations audience with him when he launched Parts Unknown; now the crown jewel in the news net's growing original-programming roster, Parts has earned seven Emmy noms and three wins.

But no channel houses as many stars as Food Network. "We develop talent on multiple shows and platforms over years," says Food Network GM and senior vp Bob Tuschman of such stars as Emmy nominee Guy Fieri, who hosts Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives; Guy's Big Bite; and Guy's Grocery Games. Such broad exposure could help boost Fieri's profile with voters, as he's become the network's biggest star. And star power — see last year's Emmy reality host winner, Hollywood Game Night emcee Jane Lynch — often can lead to gold for a host, even if the show itself fails to make a big impression.

The Liquid Frontier

While shows like Spike's hit Bar Rescue have managed to average about 2 million viewers, beverage-centric programming has struggled to land on Emmy's radar. The younger-skewing Esquire Network has thrown its hat in the Emmy race with its series Best Bars in America and Brew Dogs, which shine the spotlight on cocktails and beer and have driven double-digit growth in primetime. But whether this latest foodie phase will resonate with Emmy voters remains to be seen.

"The trick is answering: How do you format these shows?" says Esquire senior vp and head of original programming Matt Hanna. "In this competitive climate, I don't think travelogue is enough." To really entice competition-obsessed viewers — and voters — perhaps the next phase of Emmy's food wars may demand a spirits-making contest. America's Next Top Mixologist, anyone?