There’s no denying that Food Network has been a cultural game-changer. It’s launched the careers of countless celebrity chefs and arguably sparked “foodie” culture in America as we know it. But how many people actually watch it?
To answer that question, we reached out to Nielsen Media Research, whose Nielsen ratings, measuring television audiences, have long influenced the renewing or canceling of programs and become accepted as the ultimate arbiter of TV success or failure. Considering the vital part Food Network has come to play in our lives, the results were surprising, to say the least. The short answer: The History Channel's show Swamp People drew about five times as many viewers as Food Network's most recent number one show, The Next Food Network Star. In the greater scheme of things, that is, the Landry family of Pierre Part, Louisiana, are bigger stars than Bobby, Giada, and Alton.
At our request, Nielsen calculated for us the top-rated primetime (8 to 11 p.m.) Food Network programs in 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2014. Tracking the evolution of the network’s primetime strategy is a fascinating ride.
So far this year, Food Network’s 18-49 primetime viewership (the demographic that’s commonly accepted as the most important) has averaged 523,000 viewers. Food Network ranks 17th in year-to-date primetime cable TV rankings, behind the top five — TNT, USA, the History Channel, ESPN, and Disney — but also trailing such networks as Lifetime, A&E, Discovery, Fox News, and TBS. Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen, which airs on Fox, has averaged 4.82 million viewers per episode this season, a 1.66 rating, far larger than any Food Network show has managed. And for comparison’s sake, the highest-rated program on network TV for the week of July 14, NCIS, attracted about 8 million viewers, a 5.3 rating, and the highest-rated cable show, TNT’s Major Crimes, earned a 3.4 rating, with 5.3 million viewers.
To track the evolution of Food Network viewership, let’s head back to 2000, when episodes of Emeril Lagasse’s Emeril Live were broadcast a whopping 356 times. Average viewership among the 18-49 demographic clocked in at about 141,000 viewers per broadcast, with a .1 rating (Ratings are the percentage of all television-equipped households tuned in to a program at any given moment). It’s a surprisingly low number, considering the fact that Emeril’s star was shining so bright that less than a year later he was awarded a self-titled primetime sitcom on NBC. (It lasted for 10 episodes.)
The highest-rated Food Network program in 2000 wasn’t in fact Emeril Live, it was Japanese import, Iron Chef, which aired 104 times that year and had an average of 212,000 viewers. Other top-rated primetime Food Network shows in 2000 included Food Finds (135,000 viewers), Two Fat Ladies (134,000 viewers even though it only aired five times in primetime), the second season of Good Eats (131,000 viewers), and Food Nation with Bobby Flay (117,000 viewers). Rounding out the top-20 primetime programs that year was Ming Tsai’s East Meets West, which netted just 79,000 viewers in the 18-49 demographic on average for the 21 primetime telecasts (the show aired primarily during the afternoon).
Fast-forward five years, and the only primetime shows remaining from 2000 were Good Eats, Food Nation, and Emeril Live. The highest-rated program that year was the first season of The Next Food Network Star, which, contrary to popular belief, wasn’t won by Guy Fieri (he won the second season), but by “Hearty Boys” Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, who now run a Chicago catering company and burger joint. That show’s 12 episodes averaged a .3 rating in the 18-49 demographic, with 523,000 average viewers, nearly triple the highest-rated show from five years previous.
Other highly-rated primetime shows that year included the first and second seasons of Iron Chef America (435,000 viewers), Rachael Ray’s Tasty Travels (348,000 viewers), and Unwrapped (361,000 viewers). Emeril Live, which aired 295 times that year, clocked in at 243,000 average viewers, nearly double the audience of 2000 but now on the lower end of the spectrum. Their lowest-rated top-20 primetime show in 2005 was the long-forgotten Weighing In, in which “calorie commando” Juan Carlos Cruz helped people lose weight, with 198,000 average viewers.
In 2010, the primetime lineup was topped off by Worst Cooks in America, which averaged 927,000 viewers among adults 18-49 years old, a .7 rating. Emeril was long gone by now, replaced by the network’s new king, Guy Fieri, whose Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives averaged 675,000 viewers. Other top-rated shows that year included Chopped Champions (782,000 viewers), The Great Food Truck Race (675,000), and Chopped (664,000). This was a transitional year for the network’s primetime lineup; while they’d certainly found a formula that worked (many of the top shows from back then are still primetime anchors), the lineup was bogged down with middling shows like Chefs vs. City, Meat & Potatoes, Private Chefs of Beverly Hills, and Food Feuds, which averaged about 425,000 viewers each. The lowest-rated program in the top 20 primetime shows that year was Family Style, whose five episodes only attracted an average of 312,000 viewers. Yes, this number would have blown Emeril out of the water 10 years previous, but don’t forget that the network had millions fewer subscribers back then.
If the primetime lineup in 2010 was a hodgepodge of reality shows, competitions, travel shows, and straightforward cooking shows, 2014’s lineup has settled on the true moneymaker: competition shows. The 10th season of Food Network Star, Worst Cooks in America, Chopped, Cutthroat Kitchen, Rachael vs. Guy, Guy’s Grocery Games, Beat Bobby Flay, Food Court Wars, and Kitchen Casino are the top draws, rounded out by “restaurant rescue”- style shows like Restaurant Impossible, Restaurant Stakeout, Save My Bakery, and Buy This Restaurant. Food Network Star has been the top-rated primetime show for them this year, pulling a .9 rating and averaging 1,080,000 18-49-year-old viewers, followed by Worst Cooks in America at 777,000 viewers, Chopped: Tournament of Champions at 699,000 viewers, and Alton Brown’s Cutthroat Kitchen at 693,000 viewers. Rounding out the bottom of the top-20 list this year was Buy This Restaurant, which averaged just 274,000 viewers in the four episodes that made it to air. With an average of 523,000 viewers during primetime, it’s clear that these formats keep viewers tuning in.
When you think of the comparatively modest ratings of the programs on Food Network’s primetime lineup, it’s incredible to think of the cultural impact that they’ve had. Their non-primetime programs made huge stars out of everyone from Rachael Ray to Paula Deen, and their full programming slate has arguably done more to change the dining culture in this country than any other influencing factor; it’s introduced us to some of the country’s leading chefs, it’s taken us into the kitchen of some of the country’s most popular restaurants, and it’s shown us the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making a restaurant successful. And when you compare Food Network’s primetime numbers to those of, say, NBC — which has pulled an average of 2,931,000 18-49-year-old viewers so far this year but whose shows have little cultural influence (America’s Got Talent?) — it’s downright stunning.