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Food Network’s Brooke Johnson: A Four-Star Feat

Emmy, No. 3, 2012


food_net1[1]She likes going out to restaurants. Cooking, not so much. But guests of Brooke Johnson, president of the Food Network and its 2010 spinoff, the Cooking Channel, don’t go home hungry – or disappointed. Her go-to dish is a pork tenderloin – with a white-wine reduction sauce of butter, mustard and shallots.

“It always tastes good,” she says, “and it’s sort of fancy-schmancy, so I know at least I won’t embarrass myself.”

Outside the kitchen, her accomplishments need no garnish. Under Johnson, the Food Network brand has become as ubiquitous as wine in a Julia Child recipe:

● Energetic ventures such as “Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off,” “Worst Cooks in America,” “Chopped” and “Cupcake Wars” helped cook up Food Network’s highest-rated, most-watched first quarter, with an average nightly audience of 1.3 million.

● A line of Food Network kitchenware is available at Kohl’s.

● Food Network “signature dishes” are in play at select sports stadium concessions.

● The network, with partner Wente Vineyards, sells wine under the label Entwine.

Food Network Magazine, which debuted in 2009, is the number-one newsstand epicurean title, with circulation topping 1.4 million.

“Brooke led the way in the prototyping phase of the magazine,” says editor-in-chief Maile Carpenter. “She was all about the brand.” Which is why popular Food Network chefs are sprinkled throughout the articles.

But then, those faces are the most readily identifiable element of the brand – stars in their own right.

As Johnson notes, “You can’t taste the food on television. So you need a personality to communicate to people what this food tastes like. We are really, really talent-centric.”

The ingredients that make for a celebrity chef? “A basic level of expertise, and then we look for that je ne sais quoi – that so-hard-to-define quality that makes them break through. Call it star power, call it charisma, call it energy.”

Pausing, she adds: “It’s a quality that’s very, very hard to define and it’s very hard to even recognize. Because there’s a difference between what someone’s like in person and what they’re like on television. So, we know it when it works – and when it doesn’t.”

Since assuming the network presidency in 2004, Johnson has utilized a leadership approach developed during her ‘80s-era tenure with Cap Cities-ABC. “I try to keep politics to a minimum,” she says, “to have a very open and honest environment, and to speak directly.”

Johnson also believes in delegation. “Hire the right people, give them the authority to do what you hired them to do, and don’t meddle in what they do.”

Still, it was Johnson herself who played network tour guide when Vicki Wellington, vice-president, publisher and chief revenue officer of Hearst Magazines, which is partnered in Food Network Magazine, first visited the network.

“Brooke ran into me in the hallway,” Wellington recalls, “and instead of calling someone else, she took me around. I couldn’t believe the time she took with me. You feel very confident with her. She’s approachable and real – just like the [Food Network] brand.”

Johnson is the daughter of Ed Bailey, producer of the famed quiz show “Truth or Consequences” and the biographical series “This Is Your Life.” She studied English lit as an undergrad at Northwestern and has a master’s degree from the university’s Medill School of Journalism.

At ABC-owned WLS in Chicago, she was executive producer of “A.M. Chicago” and assistant program director. Then came a move to WABC in New York as program director, where she paired Regis Philbin and Cyndy Garvey for a local coffee klatch called “The Morning Show.” It eventually became the hugely successful syndicated “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee.”

As senior vice-president of programming for A&E, Johnson came up with the concept of The History Channel, and later, as A&E’s executive vice-president and general manager, she launched The Biography Channel.

It can be argued that the Food Network has carved out its own historical influence, joining globalization, immigration, and improvements in food transport to change the way America eats.

Johnson calls it “a virtuous circle,” explaining: “Most of our chefs have had an impact on the way we eat and cook. Emeril Lagasse, back in the day, was cooking with ingredients that most Americans had never heard of. Rachael Ray shows people how to make excellent meals in a relatively short time. So the chefs on Food Network open viewers’ eyes to a broader palate. And when those people serve new dishes to their friends, they get interested in food, too – and start watching the Food Network. And the circle just goes around and around.”

food_net2[1]Mindful that, for too many Americans, the circle is dramatically broken, Johnson champions the network’s partnership with the charitable organization Share Our Strength, which works to combat hunger. The group’s documentary about childhood hunger, “Hunger Hits Home,” narrated by Jeff Bridges, premiered on Food Network in April.

“It was organic to the network,” Johnson says. “Most, if not all, of our chefs – and I include not just our on-camera chefs, but those working in our [test and production] kitchens – are involved in some way with hunger and food education.” Another endeavor that Johnson proudly touts is sponsorship of the New York City Food & Wine Festival, an annual event which last year earned $1.2 million for charity.

However, Johnson is less forthcoming on the subject of Paula Deen, the popular Southern chef battered in controversy over her butter-laden dishes and her recently announced battle with diabetes and drug-company deal. “We’ve worked with Paula for a long time,” she says. “I know her to be a really genuine good-hearted warm person.”

And what of son Bobby Deen, whose show “Not My Mama’s Meals” features lighter versions of Paula’s signature dishes? Johnson insists the timing of that series (it debuted on the Cooking Channel in January) was coincidental. “That show was our idea. We gave it to Bobby long before we knew about Paula’s health issues.”

For Food Network, Johnson sees a healthy future – “more innovation and growth, and exciting faces” – driven by America’s love of all things food.

“I don’t go into a restaurant where I don’t see people taking pictures of their food. You know, when Martians come, a millennium from now, they’re going to go through all the photographs ever taken on planet Earth, and half of them are going to be of meals.”

It can be argued that the Food Network has carved out its own historical influence, joining globalization, immigration, and improvements in food transport to change the way America eats.