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Food Reality TV: Why Imitators Often Fail

By Graham Kates
August 27, 2013

This year has seen the emergence of new television cooking competitions that often lack one thing in particular: originality.

The quote may say, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but when it comes to food television, imitation can doom a show before the pilot even airs.

Consider the plight of Lifetime’s Supermarket Superstar. It’s the culinary version of ABC’s Shark Tank, a show that features a panel of investors listening to business pitches from aspiring entrepreneurs. Tank averages nearly seven million viewers per episode, but molded poorly around food, its protege Superstar attracts barely a half-million viewers each a week. That's just one-quarter of the viewers garned by that the show that airs before it, Project Runway.

Contestants on the show compete for the opportunity to get their homemade food products into A&P supermarkets - creating the kind of business that can net the winner millions in the long run - but they’re also supposed to change their products on the fly, based on criticism from the show’s judges Michael Chiarello, Debbi (Mrs.) Fields and Chris Cornyn of DINE. The result is not exactly a believably high-quality entrepreneurial or culinary showcase.

Of course, Supermarket Superstar isn't the only competition knock-off to take a nosedive in the ratings game.

There’s ABC’s The Taste, an attempt to foodify NBC’s The Voice - a singing competition in which judges pick teams of contestants without seeing their faces (just hearing their voices).

The Taste, which had judges Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, Ludo Lefebvre and Brian Malarkey pick teams of contestants without seeing their faces (just eating their food, like normal diners do), was renewed for a second season even though viewership for its eight-episode spring run dropped by half by the season finale.

It turns out audiences are more likely to dig a live singing competition than they are a canned pre-taped knockoff.

This isn’t to say that all food imitators are doomed. Where would Top Chef be without Project Runway?

Produced by the same company as Runway and created two years after its design-oriented predecessor, Top Chef sets itself apart from most other food competitions in the same way Runway does, by highlighting genuine talent. The contestants don’t sing, or display their designs, but perhaps more than any other food show, their creative talents can be judged by viewers at restaurants around the country.

But if talent alone was the key to ratings gold, every food show on TV would feature chefs with Zagat ratings near 30.

Of course, it's not all about food TV shows imitating non-food competitions. Sometimes it goes in the other direction, as with Hell’s Kitchen.

Arguably the most popular cooking competition in television history, Hell’s Kitchen often highlights the extreme ineptitude of its contestants as they compete to be “Head Chef” at one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants.

In addition to being among a host of unstoppable Gordon Ramsay shows - including MasterChef, Kitchen Nightmares, Hotel Hell, the forthcoming MasterChef Junior and a half-dozen programs in Britain - that are carried almost single-handedly by the world’s most famous chef, Hell’s Kitchen has managed to be the one food competition to spark its own shoddy imitators.

Remember celebrity Hell’s Kitchen knockoffs P. Diddy’s Starmaker and Paris Hilton’s My New BFF? Care to guess how long those shows stayed on the air?

 
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