Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations, and the Most Palate-Pleasing Binges on TV

The 1993 debut of the Food Network came 30 years after Julia Child prepared her first meal on public television for the Boston market. The hunger for food and cooking shows grew at a slow simmer for years. Fast forward to today and two cable networks, the Food Network and Cooking Channel, are devoted to cooking and food. Meanwhile, ABC, Bravo, Fox, PBS, and streaming services are serving up many hours of the genre as well.

Food-related programs represent the biggest sub-genre in the reality, unscripted TV genre, and there are more courses to come. This year, more than 30 new food-related series will premiere, and more than double that number are in production across cable and broadcast networks, as well as streaming platforms.

Many look to Anthony Bourdain’s series “No Reservations,” which premiered this week almost 20 years ago (on July 25, 2005) as the amuse bouche that started our current appetite for food TV.

The late chef-author-adventurer is routinely cited as having been a force in elevating food programming following the publication of his hit book “Kitchen Confidential.” The popularity of the book launched the Travel Channel series ”No Reservations,” which ran from 2005-2012. He moved the next year to CNN, where his travelogue ”Parts Unknown” was a huge hit as well, airing until his untimely death in 2018.

As chef and food TV power player David Chang told the Hollywood Reporter, “Food’s really only been analyzed in America since Anthony Bourdain wrote ‘Kitchen Confidential.'” He added, “Then maybe a few years ago, people thought there was a saturation in TV, but that’s because the shows were all too similar. Now the people actually making food have been able to convince TV that a lot remains untouched.”

Docuseries like Bourdain’s, and instructional fare remain popular, but the competition genre is truly boiling over. Bravo’s “Top Chef,” a cooking contest that not only dominates the ratings but has also launched multiple culinary stars, has been exported to 24 foreign territories and has spawned six American spinoffs. Now in its 17th season, “Top Chef” has cities bidding to host future seasons in order to get a spot on the culinary map of the stars.

Chef Gordon Ramsey, perhaps best known for “Hell’s Kitchen”, has four series in primetime on Fox, which makes up about 10% of the Fox primetime schedule, and brings in an estimated $140 million in ad sales revenue, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Hours of food TV programming are, often, cost effective. The genre’s most expensive hours, competitions like Ramsay’s, run $1 million per hour in production costs. But by contrast, many cable food shows are reported to cost less than $200,000 an episode.

Viewers often have a “turn it on and leave it” mentality with food TV, finding the shows bingeworthy. Food shows also have a long shelf life, repeating well. These are some of the reasons Hulu aggressively moved into the space, acquiring much of the Food Network catalog, and why Netflix is investing in originals.

However, Netflix is not killing ad-supported food TV. Viewers who find comfort food on Netflix often return to the ad-supported creator of the shows. As Courtney White, President of the Food Network said, “If a Netflix viewer happens on a food title, we see ourselves as the place where they can find stuff like that 24/7. The more people who realize they’re into food programming, the better.” The competition from streaming services is seen as complementary to long-running series.

America’s appetite for food TV, it seems, is far from satiated.

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