The Next Food Network Star IZZZZzzzzzzz…….

foodnetworstarWhat the heck happened to The Next Food Network Star?

Of all the food competition shows, this one has been consistently the best—even better than Top Chef—because it’s more than a competition. It’s a weeks-long interview for a real job—and a potential life-changing career as a celebrity chef with a valuable brand.

Oh, I know some of the winners were controversial, and Guy Fieri is still the sole break-out star of the lot.

But the actual show was fun to watch. There were always obvious also-rans, but there were usually at least three or four contenders to get excited about. So much so that several runners-up, including Kelsey Nixon, Jeffrey Saad, Adam Gertler and Tom Pizzica, eventually got shows on either The Food Network or its sister network, The Cooking Channel.

This year was different. Not only did the final three pale in comparison to some of the afore-mentioned runners-up, but the entire cast seemed like a group of also-rans.

A big problem was casting, of course. Someone got the bright idea to pack the competition with people who have been on previous shows, mostly on the Food Network, with a few culled from other areas (i.e. Gordon Ramsay’s show Hell’s Kitchen).

The logic behind this—well, there was no logic. Stacey Poon-Kinney, for instance, had appeared on Restaurant Impossible. That’s right, she was the owner of a FAILING restaurant who needed host Robert Irvine to teach her how to turn her business around. “Lovely” Jackson was a losing contestant on Hell’s Kitchen. Rodney Henry competed on Chopped and lost. Chris Hodgson competed on The Great Food Truck Race—and guess what? He lost.

Dnushka Lysek’s place in the competition wins the ultimate head-scratcher award. She has one of the most unappealing personalities of any contestant to appear on The Next Food Network Star. It’s not as if this wasn’t known to the network–she appeared on Chopped and 24 Hour Restaurant—and was a loser on both. Her bizarre, I-couldn’t-care-less-about-being-here personality was very apparent both times. On Chopped she was so lackadaisical—during a competition where people move like lightning to get their food done—the judges had to shout at her to get cooking. At least previously most-disliked Food Network Star competitor Penny Davidi cared, both about winning and making good food.

I can understand why they might have made this mistake: last year they changed the format and had the three mentors—Alton Brown, Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay—head teams of contestants they had hand-picked. The winner wasn’t just going to be the person chosen as The Next Food Network Star, but the mentor as well—he or she would get to produce the winner’s show.

It didn’t quite work out that way. For some reason, winner Justin Warner and his mentor Alton Brown parted ways. Instead of a weekly series, so far Warner has only done one special for the network. It’s unclear if he will ever get a weekly series.

So perhaps they thought picking people familiar to the audience would avert this issue—though I’m not sure how. Again, decisions did not seem to be based on logic.

The other big change this year was the absence of Food Network executives Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson from most of the judging. Not only do Bob and Susie add gravitas to the enterprise—they are a constant reminder that this is for a REAL job, not just a shot at a few fleeting moments of fame—they are both engaging personalities on camera. I for one really missed their presence. There were also some weeks when one of the mentors didn’t show up to judge, either, which made it look like the network was starting not to care very much about the whole business.

Still, the network is probably vastly pleased with the person who won. The timing couldn’t be better for Damaris Phillips, a young cook whose point of view is modern Southern cooking. She could turn out to be the perfect antidote to the scandal-ridden and departed Paula Deen. (Yes, it’s a coincidence: the Deen scandal broke after the three finalists were chosen.) But I think on a previous season it’s unlikely Damaris would have made it into the top three, much less won the ultimate prize. And yet she was so obviously better than the other two finalists that it was no surprise whatsoever when she was announced as the winner.

Here’s hoping next year they inject a little more enthusiasm into the show and do a better job of scouring the country for new talent—real talent we haven’t seen before as losers on other shows. And that Bob and Susie come back as judges on a regular basis.

We like you guys, we really, really like you.

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The Amazing Race Finale And The Value Of Tenacity

amazingrace2012-2SPOILER WARNING: IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FINALE OF THE AMAZING RACE, SPOILERS FOLLOW, INCLUDING THE WINNING TEAM.

I love The Amazing Race, it’s hands-down my favorite of the reality competition shows. What I like most about it is its purity. Whichever team crosses the finish line wins. Period. No “voting off the island.” No judges making a decision based on subjective criteria. You step on the mat first in front of host Phil Keoghan, you win.

That’s not to say there isn’t strategy involved, but the interesting thing about TAR (as those of us who love it call it) is that when teams implement strategy, the audience usually turns against them.

For instance, this most recent season saw one team finding the money another team accidently left behind–and deliberately keeping it. As far as the audience was concerned, that team was in the permanent doghouse for bad sportsmanship, even though it could have slowed the other team down and helped them in the long run. (Although in this case, it didn’t.)

So the audience for the most part was pleased when three of the most popular teams landed in the final three. This included an underdog team, Josh and Brent, the self-described “Beekmans,” a gay couple who seemed tottering on the edge of elimination week after week. Yet they stayed in it, week after week. In a stunning conclusion to the finale, they finished the race first and won a million dollars.

This set off a plethora of opinion pieces about how the “wrong” team won.

And I say, no team ever deserved to win more.

Why?

Because they NEVER GAVE UP.

They were one of the teams deemed the weakest by some of the other teams, which at times worked to their advantage, but not often. No matter how many times they came in last, no matter how many obstacles, no matter how hopeless their situation seemed, no matter how much they bickered with each other–they never threw in the towel. They just kept racing.

Tenacity can be a great asset in any endeavor. This was highlighted in the final challenge, when the three teams had to match the words “hello” and “goodbye” in different languages to the countries they had raced in. Aside from the French and Spanish words, none of the teams had any idea of which words were in which language.

Racer Lexi, who had been a great competitor throughout the race, had a meltdown when she couldn’t figure out the right combinations. It cost her the race. Josh and James (of the third team) managed to keep calm. Josh hit on ignoring the words and playing the odds with a process of elimination. He finished the task first, which propelled his team to the win.

One of the reasons Lexi had such a hard time with the challenge was purely psychological. She and teammate Trey knew that in previous seasons the final challenge has had something to do with the location of each pit stop at the end of each leg of the race. They had taken notes and believed themselves prepared. It never occurred to them the challenge would be about the words spoken to them at the pit stops. This totally psyched Lexi out and hobbled her progress during the challenge.

Over the many seasons of TAR, several teams have been done-in by giving up or giving in to despair way too soon. One year, a mother and daughter team was so convinced they were going to lose they broke the rules and took a cab when they weren’t supposed to. It turned out if they had stuck by the rules they could have survived that leg of the race because another team was in far worse trouble.

The finale of this season’s Amazing Race reminded me quite a bit of the old Aesop’s fable, The Tortoise and The Hare. While Trey and Lexie and James and Jaymes did admirably throughout the race, they also underestimated the Beekmans as competitors. They did not see the value of pure tenacity, and how that can be a winning strategy. Just like in Aesop’s tale, slow and steady won the day.

Of course, tenacity won’t ALWAYS yield success, as one year when a team spent hours into the night looking–almost literally–for a needle in haystacks and not finding the clue. They never recovered and were eliminated.

But they sure won a lot of admiration from the audience.

There are also factors like luck that can impact an outcome. A mechanical failure on a plane or a clueless cab driver have sunk more than one team in the past. But all the teams are on equal footing in the sense that it could happen to any of them.

Tenacity alone won’t guarantee a win, but giving up will surely guarantee failure.

I think that’s a great lesson that can be gleaned from this surprising and amazing outcome.

The Guy Fieri Kerfuffle: Branding And Overexposure

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives
Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unless you’ve been under a rock (or don’t read the entertainment and/or food sections of newspapers and websites) you’ve probably heard about how New York Times food critic Pete Wells’ review skewered (and barbequed) Guy Fieri‘s new Times Square restaurant, Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar.

A tidal wave of negative reviews and comments on foodie sites has followed, as well as articles and comments defending Fieri and his restaurant.

Guy Fieri (for the three of you who’ve never heard of him) is a celebrity chef who was discovered by the Food Network during their second season of The Next Food Network Star. Since then, his success has been remarkable. He is one of the most recognizable celebrity chefs (maybe just celebrity) with his signature spiked blond hair and rowdy (almost bordering on bombastic) style.

He’s been far more successful as a TV host than a TV cooking instructor. Whenever I check in on a recent episode of Guy’s Big Bite I’m struck by how much stiffer he seems than when he’s doing hosting duties. His big hit is Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (shortened, oh-so-cutely, to “Triple D”), a show where he drives around the country visiting, well–diners, drive-ins and dives. People love that show so much that sometimes The Food Network seems more like the Triple D Network, with marathons of the show running many times, especially on weekends.

I have always liked Fieri. In fact, I voted for him when he was a finalist on The Next Food Network Star and was pleased to see him become a breakout star. But it has seemed for a while now that the Food Network has been overusing him, and that he’s been spreading himself out too thin–for instance, hosting a game show called Minute To Win It. Which had nothing to do with food, by the way.

Since I haven’t patronized Fieri’s restaurant, I have no idea if Wells’ review is accurate, though other reviews seem to confirm that the food is mediocre at best and poor at worst.

(Frankly, I usually avoid Times Square restaurants when I’m in New York. Because of the pricey real estate on which they sit they can be very expensive. I prefer to hike over a few blocks west to Hell’s Kitchen, where I can get a burger or pizza for less money and enjoy a more peaceful atmosphere. But I digress.)

One thing that I can’t help noticing is the almost gleeful tone of Wells’ review (which IS funny to read, no doubt about it) and of other people’s negative comments about the restaurant and Fieri himself.

Which brings me to the subject of branding.

As writers, we hear all the time how important it is to develop our brand. Obviously, writers are not the only ones who need to concern themselves with a brand. Fieri’s career is an object lesson on how to brand yourself successfully. He developed a unique, winning persona, with an interesting point of view. If you just showed his spiked hair, you would probably know it was him, that’s how iconic it has become. Until the game show, he stuck to projects that complimented his brand.

I doubt Fieri is going to sink into obscurity because of the poor reception of his restaurant, but his brand has definitely suffered a hit. A hit that probably could have been avoided. Not just by, you know, creating a restaurant that served good food–because most restaurateurs fail at some point or another. Actually, EVERYONE fails at some point or another. But I think Fieri’s overexposure is why some people are relishing the negativity about his newest venture.

I’m kind of surprised the Food Network let this happen again. Remember what happened with Rachael Ray? There was a time when it seemed like The Food Network was The Rachael Ray Network. She also spread herself into a lot of other ventures–a talk show, a magazine (both still doing well, as far as a I know). And people began to get sick of her. People even began to hate on her.

I think the lesson we can cull from these examples is that branding is important, but protecting the brand can be just as important. Ways to protect it are not to overexpose it or spread it too thin, or lend it to the wrong kinds of projects.

As I said, I think Fieri will survive this–he still has legions of fans, he still has his shows, and he has other very successful restaurants. When J.K. Rowling got some terrible reviews for her most recent book, someone on Twitter cracked that she was blotting her tears with hundred dollar bills. Fieri’s probably blotting his with ten dollar bills. But I’m guessing he’s going to be more a bit more careful about protecting his brand from now on.

Reality TV Show Villains – Real Or Not Real?

I’m not one of those people who seek to trash reality TV or their viewers. Mainly, because I like some reality TV a lot. Mostly the competition shows, like The Amazing Race, Top Chef, Face-Off (my personal favorite) and Project Runway. The ones featuring celebrities who weren’t celebrities until they got a reality show aren’t my cup of tea, but to each their own.

One thing I’ve never thought about reality TV is that it’s actually real. A while back there was a big hoo-ha over HGTV’s ubiquitous show House Hunters not being real. Turns out, the people on the show have already bought their house. The other houses they show are sometimes friend’s houses that are not even for sale.

Horrors.

The big tip-off that there’s something fishy about House Hunters is how couples ALWAYS agree on a house at the end. Deep down, everyone watching has to know that’s total BS.

The reason to watch House Hunters is not to see someone’s genuine buying process, it’s so you don’t have to drag your behind off the couch on Sunday to tour open houses. Which may in part explain the obesity epidemic.

Even the competition shows I enjoy have their share of artifice. Though how much the end results are manipulated is questionable. (One of the things I love about The Amazing Race is the team that wins is the one that crosses the finish line first–period. But even that show has been accused once or twice of giving certain teams an unfair advantage.) People who are certain this cheftestant or that designer should have won like to indulge in conspiracy theories about judge favoritism and behind-the-scenes input that demand the “interesting,” i.e. biggest jerks, stay in the competition for as long as possible.

Then there’s the editing, which is blatantly used to turn certain people into vile villains and others into put-upon victims.

In the end, reality TV is another way to tell a story, one with the illusion of “being real.” Stories need heroes and villains, and the shows will create them if they have to.

But last night’s episode of Project Runway gave me pause.

Nearly every season, Project Runway has a “real person” challenge where the designers have to design for people who are not size 0 models. Yes, there’s always some grumbling about it, though this year most of the contestants seemed to embrace the challenge.

As usual, there was at least one who didn’t. This was Ven Budhu, who had been sailing high in the competition up to this point. He’s hardly the first who was not happy or even not nice to his model. Season 3’s Jeffrey Sebelia could have been much nicer to his, who happened to be the mother of one of the other contestants.

Ven made Jeffrey look like Tim Gunn in comparison.

He complained constantly that it was unfair other designers were given thinner models. He put forth the theory that he was being set up because he had been doing so well up to this point. He was atrocious to his model, a nice mother of four, whose friend had persuaded her to participate so she could get a fashion makeover. He kept making cracks about how he couldn’t find a belt to fit her, and how he was making the skirt black to make her look thinner. For the top he chose fabric in an ugly color that would be unflattering to any body type.

All because the woman had the temerity to be a size 14 after giving birth to four children.

His bitchiness and condescending attitude drove her to tears. I was surprised she didn’t walk out on him, and give her a lot of credit for sticking it out.

The irony is, Mr. Budhu is on the plus side himself, and hardly in a position to be judgmental of other people who don’t fit into model sizes.

He was so horrible to her that he was called out for it by the judges. They made him think that there was a chance for a double elimination and left him on the stage last (after eliminating another contestant).

Gee, you’d think that would have chastened him somewhat, wouldn’t you?

Nope, he continued with the same complaints about being set up and how other people had an unfair advantage — even though one of the designers in the top three had a model the same size as his. He whined about being left on the stage last.

The reaction to this has been overwhelmingly negative. Last night I was on Twitter looking at what people were posting on the #projectrunway hashtag, and even past Project Runway contestants were giving him hell for his attitude.

His response remained exactly the same as the attitude he showed during the episode. He is certain he was set up by the producers, that he didn’t do anything wrong to his client, that everyone is interpreting his actions unfairly.

Which makes me wonder — is this for real or is it not real? Has Mr. Budhu decided adopting this persona benefits him? He’s been talked about A LOT since the show aired, and I’m quite sensible of the fact that I’m adding to the chatter.

Let’s face it, villains are usually the most interesting characters in any story, and often the most talked about and dissected.

If he is playing at being the jerk as a way to keep the spotlight on him, he may have miscalculated. Unlike other “villain” Project Runways designers, like Jeffrey and the much-reviled Gretchen, he doesn’t seem to have supporters. He can’t even get contrarians on his side. One has to wonder if this will impact his post-Project Runway career negatively, as being able to work with clients is a big part of being a designer.

Real or not real, it’s still a compelling story. I’m sure people will stick around because we always want to know if the villain prevails or self-destructs. Which may be what he was going for in the first place.