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Jonathan Handel

Jonathan Handel

Posted: May 14, 2010 11:48 PM

Hey, Good Lookin' . . .

What's Your Reaction:

. . . whatcha got cookin'? A new culinary cable channel, at least if your name is Scripps Networks Interactive (NYSE:SNI). The company, which also serves as proprietor of the Food Network, decided preemptively to create an edgier second eatery before a competitor could swoop in and steal its lunch, not to mention its viewers. Hence the Cooking Channel, which launches in high def on May 31 and will target the foodies in the 18-49 demographic.

The channel will debut under the supervision of Food Net vet Michael Smith and with the ministrations - and, no doubt, the minestrone - of David Rocco (host of David Rocco's Dolce Vita), Chuck Hughes (Chuck's Day Off), and a host of other hosts. The focus is food of all nationalities, ethnicities and varieties. Also on the menu are vintage episodes of The Galloping Gourmet and old Julia Child shows.

At an evening reception earlier this week during the Cable Show, passion, though not passion fruit, was much in evidence. Even the execs seemed like waiters at a Greek restaurant ready to break out in song. Smith, the channel's General Manager, glowingly showed me program clips on his new iPad and even newer ultra-thin Sony Vaio. He's an early adopter of technology, with insight worthy of a Stanford grad who crafted his own major in science, technology and public policy. It's not yet clear what the channel's own mobile strategy will be - perhaps "Arugula? There's an app for that!" - though of course there's a website.

The effervescence naturally extended to the on-air talent. Hughes, for example, sports tattoos on his arms, but lest you think he's just a good looking hipster (which he is), take note: the tattoos are of food. I particularly recall a lemon, but there were others, and even an "I [heart] oysters" on his upper right arm. Should he ever seek another line of work, he'd have to have his tats lasered off, which would be a shame.

Rocco, also telegenic, grew up in Canada. Unlike Hughes, he doesn't have a restaurant. Instead, as he told me, "I'm not a chef, I'm Italian." This is a more than adequate substitute, since the hardest things to do in Italy are find a bad meal or a good driver.

In any case, Rocco's dual heritage apparently led to a clash of cultures. This reached an apotheosis of sorts when Rocco's father sawed his hockey stick into pieces and used the fragments to support his tomato plants. Rocco continued to play hockey - though a stickless sport like soccer might have been a better choice - but his father's interests clearly prevailed: Rocco now resides jointly in Toronto and Florence, and has written two cooking/travel books, in addition to his hostly pursuits. And, later sidelined from the sport by knee surgeries, Rocco now uses his old hockey sticks for his own garden. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, it seems, nor the tomato from the vine.

As tasty as this all may be, back office types prefer to count beans rather than eat them, and MBAs who tend the fields in the cable biz are more interested in carriage deals than cote du rhone. Those deals are the arrangements between a channel and cable system operators in which system operators agree to carry the channel. To investors, a channel with insufficient carriage is like a restaurant without dessert - just not worth the bother - but finding channel space these days usually means ejecting an existing channel. No exception here: another Scripps' property, the Fine Living Network, will soon breathe its last. FLN is viewable in 58 million homes, and a Scripps spokesman told me they expect little deterioration of that number. The channel will be on basic cable in the digital tier, a category that reaches 65 million households at present. Buon appetito!

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