Food Network bets on sassy Southerner

The Food Network established itself on the backs of gourmet chefs who run restaurant empires. Now, the aging cable channel is making a big bet on a sass-talking Southern grandmother with no culinary training who touts the joy of breadsticks wrapped in bacon.

In a bid to augment fading stars, fend off competition from rival networks and attract a younger audience, Food Network will launch a raucous show called "Paula's Party" on Sept. 29. Hosted by Paula Deen, 59 years old, the hour-long program will be more "Romper Room" than "Cooking with Master Chefs." At the taping of an early episode, Ms. Deen spent time trying on a young audience member's stilettos, telling jokes and staging a live crab race. She named her entry "Cocaine Connie."

"I'm keepin' the hair high and the expectations low, and that way I can't lose," drawled Ms. Deen afterwards as she puffed on a Virginia Slims cigarette.

While still a long way from a cultural phenomenon, Ms. Deen is already known to Food Network fans for her four-year old daytime show dedicated to artery-clogging comfort foods such as fried creamed corn and bread pudding made from Krispy Kreme doughnuts. She's also a cookbook author and owns a popular restaurant in Savannah, Ga. But the big-eating, big-laughing cook -- a former agoraphobic who couldn't get out of bed -- will soon be everywhere.

Aside from taping a second show for the Food Network, Ms. Deen recently began editing her own magazine. She rolls out a new cookbook titled "Paula Deen Celebrates" on Oct. 10 and is writing her memoir, to be published in April by CBS Corp.'s Simon & Schuster. She will also start marketing her own line of food products this fall, although she won't discuss the details.

The push to turn Ms. Deen into a star comes as the Food Network moves to address an array of difficulties. Co-owned by E.W. Scripps Co. and Tribune Co., the channel has sizzled since its 1993 launch by following a simple programming recipe: Combine one part cooking with two parts showbiz, sprinkle with do-it-yourself tips and serve with a dollop of Americana. The network, available in 85 million homes, has turned chefs Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali and Bobby Flay into celebrities.

But lately, while Food Network's profits and overall audience continue to grow, some of the channel's flagship programs are stalling in the ratings. The average audience for prime-time stalwart "Emeril Live" dropped 7 percent during the first seven months of this year compared with the same period in 2004, according to Nielsen Media Research. "Food Nation with Bobby Flay" was down 10 percent, while "Iron Chef," a Japanese cult hit that pits two chefs against each other, plunged 11 percent. Mr. Batali's "Molto Mario" was recently canceled; reruns of Wolfgang Puck's show perform so poorly the network banished them to 4 a.m.

Rachael Ray, known for her show "30 Minute Meals," has been a bright spot, but she is slashing the time she devotes to the Food Network by 50 percent to focus on a new syndicated show.

Moreover, competitors are trying to eat Food Network's lunch. Bravo, owned by General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal, has "Top Chef," which mimics Food Network's successful "The Next Food Network Star." Discovery Communications Inc.'s TLC is beefing up food-related content, recently rolling out two well received series called "Take Home Chef" and "Dinner Takes All." Even the Travel Channel is elbowing up to the table, debuting "No Reservations" starring celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.

"At the same time the channel has lost a bit of its luster, there are suddenly a lot of other options out there for advertisers" says Jack Kodesh, a national broadcast supervisor at MPG, an ad-buying firm owned by Havas SA.

Food Network President Brooke Johnson says rival food shows aren't on her radar. "I'm not concerned with competitors," she says. "We do food better than anybody else because it's all we do." Ms. Johnson is also dismissive of softening ratings for some of her marquee programs. "A show wouldn't be on our schedule if we didn't think it was doing great," she says.

The channel's challenges come at an awkward time for its corporate owners. Tribune, hobbled by a downturn in newspaper and television station advertising, has put its 30 percent stake of the channel on the market. Scripps, which owns the other 70 percent, is the obvious buyer, but the two companies haven't yet agreed on price.

Still, even as ratings stagnate or decline for some of its best-known series, viewers continue to flock to Ms. Deen. An average of 725,000 viewers tuned in to her daytime show, "Paula's Home Cooking," in the first quarter of this year, a 25 percent increase over the same period last year. Bob Tuschman, the network's senior vice president of programming, also notes that evening specials hosted by Ms. Deen have been blockbusters. "Paula's Southern Thanksgiving" attracted an average of 1.8 million viewers, making it Food Network's most-watched special to date

"We are trying to leverage her star power by showing her in a different environment," Mr. Tuschman says. Aside from airing at night, Ms. Deen's new show will feature a studio audience and less cooking instruction. Food Network thinks her biting sense of humor and somewhat unruly behavior will help attract a younger audience.

"We consider it Paula unplugged," says Mr. Tuschman. "You never know what is going to come out of her mouth."

Ms. Deen relishes the limelight now, but she once lived a drastically different life as a shut-in. She says her agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder characterized by panic attacks in public places, stemmed from the deaths of her parents at a young age.

In 1989, Ms. Deen found herself divorced and destitute, which she says forced her into recovery from her illness. For money, she opened a catering business called The Bag Lady, preparing sandwiches in her kitchen and sending her two teenage sons to sell them door to door. The business soon took off, and Ms. Deen eventually opened a restaurant in Savannah's historic district.

Ms. Deen's life story, which she peppers into her cookbooks and shows, is part of what makes viewers identify with her, says the Food Network's Mr. Tuschman. "She has managed to overcome a lot of obstacles, and that's inspiring to people," he says. "She created an empire out of nothing."

Ms. Deen is more modest when it comes to why her business is growing so quickly. "It's sure not because I studied hard in school," she says. "I didn't give a whoop-dee-do about those books, honey."


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