FoodTV Analysis: A breakdown of broadcasted content and it’s implied viewership

Abstract: Television has a history of airing programs that  describe and instruct on how to cook at home. The Food Network is a provider of such content, however the actual programming featuring food preparation for the home chef has been declining in recent years. In this work, the authors have taken a sample of programs and used it to deconstruct what shows are aired, and what the aired shows tells us about how network programmers perceive their audience.

The Food Network (FoodTV) constitutes a cable channel which broadcasts television (TV) shows catering to food. As with any network, it broadcasts a range of programming. At FoodTV’s conception in 1993, they featured cooking shows heavily where a chef cooked meals and gave a description of how to recreate the dish in a home setting. This tradition continued over the course of the 1990’s but began to change in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s to reflect the changes in television.

The change that swept the networks was of course reality TV. The global popularity of iconic programs such as Survivor and Big Brother spawned generations of reality TV that continue in current programming. FoodTV incorporated reality TV to adapt itself to modern programming and began broadcasting increased reality content. One notable example is this of Iron Chef

Like FoodTV, Iron Chef (a Japanese reality cooking competition) was first broadcast in 1993. Iron Chef found it’s way onto North American boradcasting with an English dub and gained traction as a cult favourite for it’s camp style and exotic fare (umeboshi, shark fin, eel farts, and other ingredients not common to North Americans). Although Iron Chef ended it’s run in 1999, countries around the world including the USA produced their own version of Iron Chef. Many shows now replicate this style of competition cooking featuring set time limits and ingredients. This is not to say it is the only reality TV featured on FoodTV. The network has aimed to appeal to a mass audience with a mix of reality TV ranging from competition to restaurant reviews and cultural exploration via food.

The range of shows now broadcast on FoodTV is not necessarily a reflection of the audience, but is most certainly a reflection of how executives and network programmers see their audience. To this end, we aim to display a snapshot of current FoodTV programming. The authors hypothesize that FoodTV now airs a disproportionate amount of reality TV in relation to cooking shows. The authors also feel that this is detrimental in general to viewership owing to the repetitiveness of shows aired.

To ascertain the content of programming on FoodTV, the authors began by classifying programs into either “Cooking” or “Reality” as defined as follows:

“Cooking” shows aim to impart knowledge directly to the audience on how to cook food products and create meals. They will contain recipes with specific quantifiable values of all ingredients (cups, tablespoons, number and size of product e.g. 2 large potatoes, pinch, pound, etc) and a protocol which may vary in detail dictating how to combine the ingredients to create the desired finished product (“Add 1tsp salt and 1tbsp sugar to the dry ingredients and sift together.”). The amount of recipes may range from one to ten depending on the show and the amount of detail imparted per recipe. Secondary goals of a Cooking show are to teach skills and background knowledge which may be helpful in future meal preparations. This includes but is not limited to products to use/buy, flavour pairings, decoration, and technical skills.

“Reality” shows aim to impart entertainment as a primary goal. They will not contain complete recipes. This may mean ingredients are purposely left out (“This is my secret ingredient! I can’t share what it is!”), methods are deliberately obscured (“I can’t tell you how we get the mac and cheese into the chicken wing, it’s a secret.”) or completely glossed over (“I created a braising liquid, then finished my prep work and made this dish.”), or that the recipe may be meant only for demonstrative purposes and is not meant for the home cook (“Then we put the fructose mix into our 5kg mixing barrel and pump through maltodextrin before putting it through the high pressure extruder/fryer.”). Multiple recipes may be shown in a reality show, but none will provide enough information to recreate the food shown. Secondary goals of a Reality show are to spotlight different food-related establishments and notable chefs, entertain via competitions, or investigate a particular food culture, or practice.

The authors used publicly available information regarding aired programming from the Canadian FoodTV network ( for the period of April 21st 2013 00:00 EST to April 27th 2013 23:30 EST. Listed shows were categorized as Cooking or Reality based on matching criteria to the above indicators. Shows were then compared based on type (Reality vs Cooking), and air time to establish results.

FoodTV airs a large majority of Reality shows
When broken down as either Reality or Cooking, the FoodTV programming is 18.45% Cooking shows and 81.55% Reality shows. Based on hours of the week, this corresponds to 31 hours/week(hr/w) of Cooking and 137hr/w of Reality aired. Each type of show was further broken down into it’s various aired shows during the analysis period. The average hours aired for any specific cooking show is 3.70hr/w versus Reality show gets an average of 7.56hr/w. Reality is clearly the predominant type of show aired, and each show broadcast is likely to receive twice the air time as it’s Cooking sister show. Reality also enjoys a greater number of overall shows broadcast than Cooking (18 vs 10, or again almost double the amount).

Within shows broadcast, Cooking shows have relatively constant content; a chef who relates recipes to the audience for roughly 30min. The content of Reality shows varies much more. They contain restaurant review shows, elimination-style competitions, makeover shows, and hidden camera shows to name the more popular emissions.

Untitled-2Figure 1: FoodTV broadcast shows. Hours of shows aired per week on FoodTV are broken down by type of show (A), and then further broken down into specific shows aired (B).

Cooking shows air during daytime hours while Reality shows air during primetime.

For each 30min time slot of the day, beginning at 00:00 and ending at 23:30, the probability was calculated of whether the program would be Cooking or Reality. In general, there is probability of finding a Reality show at all times of the day with the exception of 10:30-12:00. Probability of catching a Cooking show begins at 5:00, peaks from 10:30-12:00 with 100%, and finishes at 15:00 at which the probability of catching a Cooking show drops back to 0%.Untitled-3

Figure 2: Daily schedule visualized. All programming for seven days is averaged to show a typical daily broadcast, starting at 00:00 (0.0) and extending to 23:30 (23.5).

To begin discussing the importance of programming, we must understand the benefits bestowed by both Reality and Cooking shows. Cooking shows give clear instructional insights into food preparation and aid viewers in creating flavour combinations they may not have thought of. Viewers, including the authors, have expressed the opinion that Cooking shows have been a key stepping stone to learning in a kitchen environment. The drawback of Cooking shows is that care must be taken in which recipes may be followed at home. For example, although Jaime Oliver recipes frequently appear simple and appealing, the flavour when made in the author’s kitchen is less than desirable giving the effect of “Oh wow, I thought this would be amazing but it’s just kind of funny tasting.” By contrast, Gordon Ramsay recipes are much more frequently deemed “OMG so gooood, we’re totally making this again!!” Overall, Cooking shows bestow important culinary education not otherwise available to a self-taught chef.

Reality shows may infrequently aid in cooking inspiration, but will almost never afford the viewer a recipe which can be followed. Some genres of Reality shows such as Diners Drive-ins and Dives or You Gotta Eat Here provide information which constitutes a visual restaurant review. These reviews are mostly useful if the viewers wish to find a restaurant with enough fat content in the menu to aid in the development of early cardiovascular disease, however the authors do fully concede that the colloquialism “fat is flavour” was not made in error. Competitive Reality shows (Top Chef, Chopped, Iron Chef) provide entertainment but tips that are only helpful to a more experienced cook. The amateur home cook is unlikely to seek advice for cooking ingredients such as foie gras, ramps, or olive oil gelato.

Now that we have established the broadcasted content deemed appropriate by FoodTV programmers, we must reflect on what this programming tells us about viewership. The primary finding is that programmers believe an audience interested in useful cooking information exists only in the morning and early afternoon. This group is often generalized as containing “stay at home” parents. During primetime and late evening periods, the programming is exclusively Reality shows. These are prime viewing hours for what is generalized as the “hardworking full-timers.” The message that can be taken from programmers is that only those with small children are and should be interested in how to cook. Those with “real” jobs that are away during daytime hours could only be interested in entertainment, and have no real interest in actual cooking.

At the current rate of elimination of Cooking shows from FoodTV’s line up, it is possible to assume the trend will continue leading to a possible total elimination of Cooking shows. This is not an impossibility as a similar, yet total shift has already occurred on another station: TLC used to be an abbreviation of The Learning Channel, but now represents only a title as viewers would be hard-pressed to call any TLC programming “learning”. With the elimination of Cooking, and domination of Reality shows, it is possible that we may see a decrease in home cooking, and the knowledge of how to cook, with shows increasingly pulling away from any food information and focusing instead on interpersonal drama and competition.


Spatchcocked Chicken

Spatchcocked Chicken: A cooking methods review

Cooking a whole chicken can be intimidating and time-consuming, causing inexperienced home cooks to be fearful to attempt such culinary applications. The authors propose that spatchcocking a chicken to flatten the carcass is an expedient method with which to prepare fowl for cooking. The favoured method of cooking described in this article is oven roasting of the spatchcocked chicken in a cast iron pan.

In an informal survey performed by the authors, only roughly 15% of Montreal Plateau inhabitants felt capable of roasting a chicken without supervision. Many home cooks experienced feelings of consternation and/or distress and anxiety when faced with whole poultry preparation. This anxiety stems principally from a fear of enteritis salmonellosis caused by Salmonella, a gram-negative rod-shaped bacteria. This bacteria can cause a zoonotic infection, meaning although the host is often poultry, it can infect humans who consume the poultry. Luckily, Salmonella can be destroyed through the application of heat. If the medium hosting the bacteria, in this case poultry, can be heated to an internal temperature of 155°F, the bacteria will be destroyed therefore ensuring proper cooking time is key to alleviating this fear.

In it’s intact form, whole chicken consists of the body with wings and legs attached which forms a hollow cavity by way of the rib cage, backbone, and sternum. Such a formation requires that heat penetrate the chicken from the outside as well as the inside (hollow cavity) to properly cook the meat and destroy any bacteria present. The dual-penetration of heat necessary can take long incubation times in the oven which make cooking whole poultry at home time-consuming and therefore undesirable to the home cook. To this end, the authors propose spatchcocking of the chicken body to create rapid incubation time.

Spatchcocking is a method to dispatch of the hollow internal cavity of the chicken, rendering it into a flat, two-sided piece of meat. Although spatchcocking can be done at the point of sale of the poultry (butcher, grocer, etc.), it is a simple task that requires minimal equipment and skill. In a spatchcocked chicken, the spinal cord has been removed. This allows the cook to open the carcass and crack the sternum to fully flatten the breasts. The flattened carcass now has maximal surface area which can be in contact with various implements of heat such as a cooking vessel or grill.

The authors feel that the best vessel in which to heat the spatchcocked chicken is a cast iron pan. As the name implies, a cast iron pan is formed by iron, melted and cast into an appropriate shape. The iron is then coated in thin layers of plant or animal fats and heated to “season” the pan. The fats, which consist partially of long chains of carbon, heat in the oven and undergo polymerization of the of the carbon chains. The polymerized carbon creates a non-stick surface while the iron core of the pan creates a long-lasting and even heat distribution to any materials placed in the pan. The simplicity and availability of materials to create cast iron cookware can be evidenced in it’s historical background. The earliest finds of cast iron to cook dates back to the Han Dynasty in China where the vessels were used for salt evaporation. The nature of cast iron which allows it to be placed directly onto a heat source such as open flame made it a popular material choice for cooking over a hearth or fireplace. Although cast iron is often set aside for teflon coating, it remains an efficient and flavourful option in the kitchen.

By cooking a spatchcocked chicken in a cast iron pan, the authors posit that the chicken can be cooked quickly and efficiently. With a more reliable way to heat the chicken through, fears of enteric salmonellosis can be set aside and a flavourful and easy chicken can be served.

Materials and Methods:

To spatchcock a chicken, one may utilize a large knife or a pair of kitchen shears, both preferably sharp. The chicken is laid out on a cutting-safe surface with the spine on the cutting surface (knife method), or with the spine facing upward (shears method). The spinal cord is excised from the poultry carcass by cutting along both sides of the spine, through the attached ribs. The spine can be discarded or saved for the creation of chicken stocks. The chicken carcass can be opened and laid down skin/breast-side up on the cutting surface. Using a hand, one applies pressure upon the chicken breasts to crack the sternum and flatten the breasts.

Untitled-2Figure 1: Spatchcocking a whole chicken. (A) Top view of a chicken can be seen. Breasts face up. (B) Bottom view of the chicken. Note this is where the spinal column will be most easily accessible. (C) Spinal cord excision. Cuts are made to either side of the spine, eliminating the open cavity of the chicken. (D) The chicken is placed back breast side up (similar view to (A)), and pressure is applied via a hand to the center of the chicken breasts.

2013-01-30 17.51.27Figure 2: Spatchcocked chicken ready for incubation. The final butchered chicken is laid out in the cast iron pan ready for incubation in the oven.

Cast iron use:
Seasoning of the former internal cavity of the chicken with salt and pepper is a crucial step to ensure flavourfulness. The spatchcocked chicken is laid down in the cast iron pan with the skin side up and the skin is patted dry using a blotting paper. The skin can now by seasoned with salt, pepper, and a selection of spices. The authors used paprika and cayenne. The chicken can be drizzled in oil and placed at 450°F for 30-45min (assuming an original chicken weight of 3lbs). Be sure to rest the chicken on a flat surface covered in tin foil for 10min before carving and serving.

In comparison to preparation of a whole chicken, the authors found spatchcocking took less time. Normally, the chicken would have been seasoned externally and internally, then roasted in an assortment of root vegetables. Although root vegetables could have been used here, the authors were experiencing a shortage of potatoes and other roastable root vegetables so they were excluded. The excision of the spine was a quick procedure which was accomplished with kitchen shears. One detractor of this method is that the sheared ribs become sharp objects so care must be taken when handling the opened chicken.

Cooking time and temperature of the chicken also varied between classical oven roasting and spatchcock cast iron roasting. Notably, whole chicken tends to be roasted at 350°F, a relatively medium heat which penetrates evenly throughout the chicken. In this application, the heat was set to 450°F which would normally be a poor chicken-roasting temperature. However after spatchcocking this high heat method allows for rapid cooking of the chicken flesh as well as crispification of the chicken skin which is normally achieved over a long period of roasting. Comparing incubation times, the spatchcock/cast iron method is 2.3x faster than traditional roasting (data not shown), a feat accomplished through increased heat and surface area.

The finished product was fully comparable to a traditional whole chicken. The flavour and juicy-ness profile were indeed highly similar, although the skin was not quite as crispy as previous attempts with a whole chicken. This is likely a function of the decreased incubation time, possibly in combination with above-average skin thickness on the particular chicken selected for cooking. Overall, the slight difference in skin crispyness is not enough of a factor to outweigh the significantly decreased cooking time provided in the method described here. In the future, the authors would include small potatoes in the cast iron pan around the chicken, believing that this environment would likely yield crispy potatoes. The authors feel that this method constitutes a reliable and quick method of whole chicken cooking suitable to weeknight meal.

We thank Perelman et al (Smitten Kitchen cookbook, 2012) for providing inspiration to our dish. We also thank Loblaws for providing whole chickens at a sale price at the time the authors set out to procure a chicken.