As the COVID-19 crisis gripped the nation, millions of people went into lockdown and suddenly found a lot of unexpected free time. Some picked up new or long-forgotten hobbies, while others soaked up extra family time. Still others combined the two and began focusing on more involved home-cooked meals. Social media exploded with images, videos and commentary about sourdough starters and banana bread, and that inspired a new wave of unscripted television series.
“We made ‘Crime Scene Kitchen’ about baking only, and that’s not something I think we would have done a year earlier [due to] a fear that people wouldn’t have been as familiar with the different types of baking,” says Rob Wade, president of alternative entertainment and specials at Fox Entertainment. “What makes a great reality show is when you can really connect to what the contestants are trying to achieve.”
Developed and produced during the pandemic, “Crime Scene Kitchen” is a competition series that features teams trying to decipher what dessert they have to make based on clues sometimes as small as a crumb on a countertop or a wet pan left in a drying rack. It premiered in May and is the lone non-Gordon Ramsay food series at Fox. Over the past year and a half, though, Fox also expanded its partnership with that celebrity chef; first the broadcast network picked up “Next Level Chef” (also in May) and then, just earlier this month, Fox Entertainment and Ramsay partnered on new production entity, Studio Ramsay Global.
While it took a moment for Fox to get “Crime Scene Kitchen” up and running because it was a new show, Food Network was uniquely positioned for the pandemic, in that its entire lineup was already filled with cooking and baking shows. The task there became pivoting quickly to be able to produce beloved titles with a slightly new angle to both adjust to changing health and safety protocols and deliver something that would speak the most to those who typically follow the chefs along at home.
“What we were seeing kind of in the earlier stages of COVID when people were spending a lot of time at home and cooking more than ever, or cooking for the very first time, were a couple of themes. Some were looking for really specific info. The question that we got again and again was, ‘What can I cook from my pantry? What can I substitute?,’” says Courtney White, president, Food Network and Cooking Channel.
This led Food Network to adapt its long-running “The Kitchen” to do more “pantry pull” episodes, tap Michael Symon (of “Symon’s Dinners Cooking Out”) to produce a practical guide for 30 days of dinners, put cameras in “Supermarket Stakeout” host Alex Guarnaschelli’s backyard for a “What Would Alex Make?” spinoff, and to greenlight and remotely produce the new series “Amy Schumer Learns to Cook.” Meanwhile, Discovery Plus greenlit and produced “Well Done With Sebastian Maniscalco,” although not remotely.
“Nimbleness” became the name of the game for those shows. For example, White recalls, “From the time that we had our first conversation with Amy Schumer’s team about that show to premiere was about 40 days. Our first episode of ‘The Kitchen’ that was really about cooking during the pandemic with what you had, we came up with that idea, we shot it the next weekend and it aired the following weekend. We realized that if we couldn’t figure out how to move that quickly, we wouldn’t be serving our audience who flooded to us right away and needed us very quickly to be responsive to their changing needs.”
Answering the marketplace’s needs paid off for both Fox and Food Network. Fox boasts that “Crime Scene Kitchen” ranked as the summer’s No. 1 new series with an average of 3.6 million total viewers across platforms, while Food Network overall saw a lift in viewership, growing 9% year-over-year in the second quarter of 2020 alone, which made it the highest-rated second quarter since 2013.
HBO Max launched during the pandemic, ordering “Selena + Chef” just weeks before the service went live and debuting the first season of that series three months later. (It has since been picked up for two more seasons, with the second dropping last November and the third coming this fall.)
“When this was pitched to me, it was before we even started using Zoom, so this was very early on in the pandemic and it was just a very obvious choice for us,” says Julie St. Aubin, vice president, unscripted originals, HBO Max. “There was the added benefit of, ‘Oh wow, this is a show we actually could produce now.’ And I don’t think Selena would have even had the time to do it otherwise, and I don’t think the chefs would have been available either. But we were definitely looking for, ‘What is the audience going to want now that we’re all trapped at home?’”
“Selena + Chef,” like “Amy Schumer Learns to Cook,” relies heavily on the star power of its titular amateur cook to draw in part of the audience. In a similar vein comes Netflix’s “Cooking With Paris,” which was inspired by Paris Hilton’s pre-pandemic YouTube video in the kitchen. But that series is just one of the streaming giant’s examples of expansion in the cooking and baking space. Also premiering this month is bragging rights competition series “Bake Squad” with host Christina Tosi, while the fall brings amateur competition series “Baking Impossible” and “School of Chocolate.” Hulu greenlit “Baker’s Dozen,” “The Next Thing You Eat” and a holiday edition of “Taste the Nation.”
Many of these shows were produced in a way that was assumed to be short-term, but still had to have shelf-life beyond pandemic times. Pushing through the added cost, time and footprint each show would have due to new health and safety protocols was also worth it to get the industry back to work, Wade says.
He reflects on an interview he saw with a Vietnam veteran who had been held in a POW camp for six years: “He said the people who always cracked were the ones who said, ‘I just need to last a year and it will be over.’ You can’t think like that. We could be in this situation for many, many years to come, so the idea of saying, ‘We’ll make this one after this is over’ is probably not the wisest thing to do.”
“The intimacy and the immediacy and the authenticity with which we shoot our shows,” White says, has become increasingly important during this time. That also means providing new experiences, such as escapism, through travel cooking shows or new series that tie into a time of year, such as Food Network’s “Ben & Jerry’s: Clash of the Cones,” an ice cream competition series set at that brand’s headquarters in Vermont that just launched Aug. 16.
All these executives note that they would not buy a show simply to hop on a trend; it was uniqueness of format and the power of specific partnerships that lured them. That they were also able to serve new needs of their audiences during a particularly arduous time has been — pardon the pun — the icing on the cake.