Tuesday, May 27
Bob Tuschman is the man behind Food Network and its successful lineup of programming. Each summer since 2005, Bob has stepped in front of the camera to serve as a judge on the selection committee for The Next Food Network Star--the cable network's highest-rated program.
I spoke with Bob by telephone recently to discuss what's in store for the upcoming season, changes we can expect this year, his thoughts on competition with other cable networks, and why they don't call it "reality TV."
[End Official Sounding Introduction Here]
I was actually very excited to talk to Bob Tuschman, since I'd be the one asking the questions for a change! He's known for "assaulting" would-be talent with questions and spending long periods of time just staring at people to judge their potential. Besides a 2005 interview with Gothamist, I hardly ever see full interviews with Bob, so I'm extremely thankful I got the opportunity.
Food Network Addict: This June 1 is the premiere of season 4 of The Next Food Network Star. Are you excited about this year’s season?
Bob Tuschman: More excited than I’ve ever been before. I think the level of finalists that we have this year is going to blow everybody away.
FNA: Did you initially think the show would be this successful and be going into its fourth season?
BT: I don’t know if we actually considered it. We knew that we had a really legitimate need to find new stars. As you know, we’re a totally star-driven network, and we really did have a need to find the next Food Network star. I think like anything you do in TV, you do the best job you can, but you never know what’s going to catch an audience’s attention and what’s not. And we’re thrilled that this hasn’t just caught fire, but seems to get bigger and bigger every year.
FNA: The show’s overall look and feel has improved considerably since the first season. Was this the first show you invested that much into?
BT: Well, we have a lot of shows we invest a lot into. All of our key shows like Iron Chef America, Ace of Cakes, and Dinner: Impossible really compete with the best shows on cable anywhere. This show, just because it’s an hour-long, continuing storyline reality series, has its own set of production needs, and so we invest very heavily in this show because we know our viewers really love it and demand the best in it, so we want to deliver it to them.
FNA: A majority of this year’s contestants are classically trained and working in restaurants as chefs. Was this a conscious decision?
BT: It was. We really wanted to up the culinary level this year. We always had really great personalities in all four seasons, but this year we really focused on making sure that they didn’t just have what we look for in a star personality, but they really could deliver on the food promise of a Food Network star. So we really raised the bar in terms of who we were looking for. And then we flew in the top 26 finalists to our studios and made them cook in front of us—they didn’t know they were going to do it all week, sort of sandbagged them. Brought them into a studio where they faced a panel of Food Network executives and production executives and showed them a pantry and said, “Guess what? You have 30 minutes to impress us with your cooking while we assault you with questions.”
FNA: Was it a problem in past seasons having contestants without a high enough culinary level?
BT: Every year we learn more and more what’s going to make the competition more intense and more dramatic. And we thought if the battles existed not just on the TV front, but also on the culinary front in a much more intense way where everyone was equally matched culinarily, it’d be that much more exciting to watch.
FNA: The JAG controversy was huge last season. Are you pressured to conduct more thorough background checks on the contestants now?
BT: We’ve always done background checks on the contestants. There’s just certain things that didn’t come out in background checks… so, we’ve always done that.
FNA: Two out of the three winners of this show have basically fizzled out in terms of presence on Food Network. Do you think the viewers picked the wrong person, or was it not enough viewers watching?
BT: Guy Fieri has turned into one of the largest stars on the network, so I think the viewers absolutely know how to pick the right person. In the case of Amy Finley, it was her decision because her show was actually a huge hit; she was one of the highest-rated in daytime for the six weeks she was on. We went back to her because we were thrilled with how fantastic the show was doing, and she was the one who decided she didn’t want to do any more.
FNA: She mentions in an article on your website that she thinks she didn’t deserve to win. Do you think she deserved to win?
BT: Absolutely. I think one of Amy’s many charms is her low-key, self-deprecating nature. That’s one of the things people liked about her so much. She was such an expert cook; she was such an amazing teacher. She was such a warm, generous personality and I think that’s why people liked her, but it’s the very quality that endeared her to so many people that made her very shy about her talent.
Also, Dan and Steve [season 1 winners] were successful. We picked them up immediately after the six shows they did. They did another 26 shows and they got a cookbook deal out of it, so they actually were successful. I think everyone has a different time line. Overall, I think America made a very good choice picking them.
FNA: But I did notice that this season just the judges will pick the winner, as opposed to a public Internet vote like in the past. Where did that come about?
BT: I think that we wanted to be able to give viewers nine great episodes. We also wanted to be able to introduce the winner’s show immediately following the finale, the week after. Obviously, we couldn’t do that if we waited until the end [for a public vote], because there’s a long pre-production period.
(Food Network is also doing a new "Fan Favorite" poll this season in which viewers can vote weekly for their favorite finalist. Viewers will have the opportunity to win prizes, but I don't think the prize package has been finalized yet.)
FNA: To me, a show like Top Chef was able to achieve mainstream appeal and high ratings partially because it’s on the same network as Project Runway and other similar, popular reality shows. Do you think Food Network’s early days of instructional cooking shows attached a stigma to TNFNS that a show like Top Chef doesn’t necessarily have?
BT: What we try to do it make the best, most dramatic, compelling show we can. And we really focus on our own shows and not the competition.
FNA: Still, did it come as a shock when Top Chef did so well suddenly proclaimed itself the "#1 food show on cable?"
BT: Whenever we see people getting into the food space and doing shows that excite a nationwide audience about shows and cooking and showing that food can be a really great primetime vehicle for delivering ratings, I think that’s a good thing for everybody. Bravo has one show that's about food; we have an entire network 24/7 that's about food. So anyone who watches a show on a Bravo or an NBC and thinks “Oh my god, food is really exciting” comes to check us out. So, ultimately competition is good. It enlarges the space where people understand that food programming is really great, compelling primetime programming.
FNA: Some of your most successful shows aren’t instructional cooking shows. Any plans to do a reality show that would bring us a new kind of Rachael’s Tasty Travels or Giada’s Weekend Getaways?
BT: We’re absolutely looking to do more programming along those lines. Next Iron Chef was also a huge ratings hit for us. We don’t use the term reality because we’re a non-fiction network, so everything is reality. But you could look at them as reality shows. Dinner: Impossible, Ace of Cakes, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives are reality shows and week-in and week-out some of the most popular shows on our network. About three years ago we really set out to redefine primetime and give people programs that we thought could compete with anything on cable or even on network in terms of being dramatic and compelling and exciting, but also informational. We’ve always been a reality network.
FNA: Thank you for talking to me, Bob. Any sneak peeks on this year’s season or on Food Network in general?
BT: I will just tell you that we’ve got a huge slate of programming coming up all summer long. We have 11 new shows coming up both in primetime and in daytime--a lot of new personalities and formats. It truly will be one of the most exciting year’s in Food Network history… in the entire history of the network.
Thanks a lot to Bob for taking the time to talk to me (and to Lisa for setting it up)!!! I was only intimidated once (when asking about Bravo, the speakerphone was muted for what seemed like a full minute, but was probably much less), so yay for me. I'm turning into a regular Barbara Walters! Next time I'll see if I can make Bob cry, just like Babs. Wish me luck!