Zero Calories: The appeal of Food Network and DIY TV

Movies have long been my bread and butter. Whether it’s new releases, classics, or avant-garde erotic dramas from the 1970s on VHS, most of my weekends are spent in front of a screen watching and analyzing film. So come spring break, when I finally had a week to myself and my parent’s deluxe cable package with HBO and Netflix, I was ready to do some serious screening. For seven days, I watched the Food Network exclusively.

There’s an inherent comfort in the Food Network and its sister channels: Cooking Channel, HGTV, DIY (“do it yourself”) Network, and Travel Channel. There are no plots to follow, no actors, and if a show’s not shot on a specific location, the only visuals are kitchen sets and rudimentary cinematography. Their reality competitions are low-risk, filled with casts of everyday people that typically rotate each episode. Hosts speak directly to viewers, or a narrator guides us through those reality shows and low-budget competitions. Within a few viewings, one becomes familiar with the celebrity chefs and home designers. We know their names, their gimmicks, their catchphrases; the styles of cooking, design, or commentary in which they specialize. The recipes and locations may change, but no matter what, we know that we’ll be watching charismatic professionals do what they do best for around 20 minutes.

Food Network is available in nearly 100 million homes nationwide. In 2015, while the majority of the top cable networks saw huge declines, Food Network and HGTV both went up in their ratings. This all makes sense—with easy-to-watch programming that is more or less the same year to year, audiences always know what to expect and have a place to turn when other networks fail them. A bad episode of The Walking Dead might cause AMC’s network ratings to decline, but you’d be hard pressed to even begin a definitive ranking of episodes of Barefoot Contessa. And while a competition show like American Idol might see higher ratings for episodes with dramatic eliminations of fan-favorite singers, a show like Chopped  relies on consistency—every episode follows the same format and features fairly homogenous contestants. 

The message of many of these shows, from Giada at Home to Property Brothers, is that you can ultimately learn from each episode’s methods and techniques to do your own cooking or renovations at home. However, even after a long binge-watch of daytime Food Network, I still have cereal for dinner. Perhaps this goes to show that DIY television is really just a means of living vicariously in a world where breakfast is a Gruyere soufflé and the afternoon is spent transforming that ugly guest room into a new office. These networks thrive on our own good intentions and busy lifestyles. Most people don’t have the time or ability to live the HGTV lifestyle, but for a few hours, we can completely relax and watch designers who do. Sometimes the best form of relaxation is sitting on the couch and watching as other people do all the work we’re putting off.