Clear the Table for Food Channel TV

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

DAVID ROSENGARTEN looks straight into the camera and levels with his viewers. He has cut open a grapefruit-size durian, a spiky, notorious, odoriferous Asian fruit.

He describes it as smelling just like ``very old French cheese,'' prompting him to quickly move it out from under his nostrils.

Even if your TV doesn't have an odorama feature, you get the picture - only one of many projected during a recent day when this reporter toured the set of TVFN.

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Under another set of lights, an attractive brunette is stirring consomme to pour over a dish of crabmeat ravioli. A rather large man with noticeable ears and a grating, nasal English accent offers to get her a date with Prince Charles. She appears more interested, however, in the consomme. But, Robin Leach, best known for chronicling the lifestyles of the rich and famous, persists with his matchmaking efforts.

A woman from Oak Park, Mich., announces that she has gone from 350 pounds to 180, but she still wants to lose more weight. For the next five minutes, two doctors and a TV journalist try to convince her otherwise. ``See how you feel in another year,'' suggests one of the doctors.

Smell, taste, nutrition, entertainment - it's all part of a day in the life of the TV Food Network.

Since starting last November, TVFN - as it is known - has now grown to seven hours of programming per day. On May 1, it goes to eight. Eventually it will swell to 12 hours.

With programming in place, the network, founded by the Providence Journal Co., is trying to work its way into everyone's home kitchens.

``That's the hard part,'' says Reese Schonfeld, president of TVFN, based in New York.

The network - thanks to partner and broadcaster the Tribune Co. - is projecting it will have 12 million subscribers this year. By 1996, it hopes to have 18 million.

``We are the third-largest launch in history - behind TNT and ESPN2,'' Mr. Schonfeld says. Once the network gets its foot in the cable door, it is projecting a .3 rating among those subscribers - indicating 36,000 people are watching the show at some point this year.

If it gets its audience, Schonfeld predicts TVFN will be profitable. Between start-up and profitability, he is estimating it will cost $50 to $60 million.

``I know the show is hot,'' says Schonfeld, who recounts how a Wall Street investment banker recently called to try to buy the network.

Last week, TVFN signed on its first national advertising client, Del Monte Fresh Produce. Some of the classic television food programs, such as those hosted by Julia Child and Graham Kerr - The Galloping Gourmet, are now helping to fill programming gaps on TVFN.

In the future, however, the station will be setting its table with new shows. On May 2, TVFN will include Cunningham & Co. The first show is a paean to James Beard (40 cloves of garlic, please) as cookbook author Marion Cunningham, a Beard student, talks with Judith Jones, Beard's editor at Knopf publishers. It is a James Beard love feast - more a history of food than anything else.

In the future, there will also be a ``How to Feed Your Family on $99 per Week'' effort. TVFN is still trying to find the right host to present the show.

The same is true of a show called, ``How to Boil Water.'' Eventually, there will be shows on ethnic cooking and entertaining. ``I have more ideas than I have talent,'' Schonfeld says.

In the meantime, Schonfeld is trying to increase the intellectual value of the current shows.

The day continues with an enthusiastic woman, Debbi Fields (the original Mrs. Fields of cookie fame), pouring sugar into a mixing bowl. For the next half hour she will keep exuding enthusiasm - and keep pouring sugar - as she makes Espresso Cookies, Espresso Brownie Waffles, and Mocha Peanut Butter Balls.

The most remarkable part of this show is that Mrs. Fields has five children, claims to bake all the time, and has not turned into the shape of her round cookies.

Although TVFN is just beginning research on its shows, Schonfeld says ``Desserts with Debbi Fields'' is the network's most popular show.

The network is now averaging about 800 letters a day, and Ms. Fields gets the most mail. ``Desserts are fantasies, meals are real,'' reasons Schonfeld.

The set looks like a 1950s diner. Across the Formica, the two hosts, Bill Boggs and Nina Griscom, are talking animatedly about Leo's Luncheonette in Chicago. ``It's grunge food,'' Mr. Boggs says. ``It's like eating in a B-movie,'' replies Ms. Griscom.

This is also pure illusion since neither has actually eaten at Leo's. Instead, producer Dorie Greenspan has briefed the duo on reviews from Chicago newspapers and magazines.

The best parts involve New York restaurants where Boggs and Griscom - both foodies - have actually eaten. The network considers this segment more of a dining guide than a review.

Programming picks up when Mr. Rosengarten returns with the food news of the day. His co-host is Donna Hanover, who is also the wife of New York's mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The show has a scoop:

The new White House nominee-chef, Walter Scheib, will start cooking on April 4. The date appears to be news to the White House, since Mr. Scheib does not yet have a security clearance.

Ms. Hanover conspicuously avoids tasting food on the set. When prodded, she explains: ``I got a call from my mother who said it wasn't ladylike to eat on the air.''

Since it is the season for spring lamb, TVFN has brought in a butcher, Stan Lobel who talks about the different cuts and how to cook them. Mr. Lobel was butcher to ABC's Roone Arledge.

Meanwhile, Olympian gymnasts Bart Conner and Nadia Comaneci are trying to get the viewers to work out: push-ups, sit- ups, and step classes.

But, Robin Leach has a better way to loose weight. He has a fork and spoon, each attached to five- pound bar bells.

``Only $29.95,'' he jokes as he tries to eat a piece of cheese without swallowing the weights as well.

Earlier, he proudly tells a visitor, ``We're the oddball.'' No one can argue.

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