Turn on the Food Network any night of the week, and this is what you’ll probably see: “a larger-than-life host, a specifically defined challenge, bombastic music, a set time limit, a panel of judges, and a cast of contestants whose back-story and biographical detail serves to heighten the stakes and fan the [program's] already heated dramatic flame.”
That’s according to a 2013 study of Food Network’s evolution from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee associate professor Tasha Oren. The Food Network may have started as a channel focusing on the dishes themselves—think Emeril Lagasse and “Bam!” But in order to grow, the network has abandoned its food focus in favor of formulaic competition.
Number of Competition Shows Airing on Food Network
(These numbers are based on the year that a show aired most of its episodes during a season. Some shows, like Chopped, are counted by the network as separate shows even though they’re essentially the same—Chopped spawned Chopped Tournament, for example, which pits winners of previous themed shows against each other in a four-show tournament. Here Chopped and Chopped Tournament are counted as one show.)
The trend started with Iron Chef, which came to the network in 1999 from Japan. By 2000, Iron Chef was beating out Lagasse’s Emeril Live as the most-watched show on the network; Emeril scored an average of 335,000 viewers per show versus the Iron Chef’s 372,000. Iron Chef was rife with theatrics and a sport-like atmosphere; the setting is called Kitchen Stadium, there’s a commentator on the floor, and the chefs have an hour to prepare five courses.
The popularity of Iron Chef reruns led to the creation of Iron Chef America and The Next Food Network Star in 2005, the first original Food Network competitions, which in the year of their launch became the most popular primetime shows on the channel. The fast-paced competition show Chopped, which pits four chefs against each other in a three-round competition, debuted in 2009 and became a template for future shows. In each round, the chefs receive a mystery basket of items they are required to use in their dishes, and by process of elimination, the final two face off in the dessert round for a $10,000 prize.