“They have a formula”: Why some of the Food Network’s original stars are moving on

For two decades, Rachael Ray had been an intrinsic part of the Food Network’s DNA. She was both prolific — one year she reportedly delivered a staggering 263 episodes to the cable channel — and versatile. With her easy-going on-air presence and an arsenal of accessible recipes, she joined the network in 2001 with her landmark program, “30 Minute Meals” along with several travel shows, including “$40 a Day” and “Rachael Ray’s Tasty Travels,” which she eventually parlayed into her long-running CBS talk show “Rachael Ray.” 

Then, last May, Ray announced that she was moving on from “Rachael Ray” after 17 seasons. There was some industry chatter that she was leveraging the popularity of the show to negotiate a new blockbuster contract with the Food Network (one reportedly bigger than Bobby Flay’s multi-year $80 million deal), however, she instead announced that she was shifting into production by launching Free Food Studios, formed last year with longtime collaborators Brian Flanagan, Anthony Amoia and Sean Lee. 

On Tuesday morning, it was then announced that A+E Networks had acquired a 50% stake in the company and ordered 278 episodes of lifestyle programming. In discussing the deal with Variety, Ray spoke about the current state of the Food Network — and in doing so, potentially offered some additional insight into why some of the channel’s original stars are moving on.

“Food Network has a terrific formula — but they have a formula,” Ray said. “They like games, competitions, stuff like that. That’s not the type of programming I want. I want a little more freedom to be in charge of the actual content, rather than just hosting something. I don’t want to host anything. I just want to make shows.”

Longtime viewers of Food Network get it. 

Especially over the last decade or so, much of the channel’s storied stand-and-stir food education programming has steadily been replaced with competition series — featuring chefs racing against the clock and parsing through baskets of secret ingredients — that are formulaic enough that sketch comedy series from “Key and Peele” to “The Iliza Shlesinger Show” have spoofed them to humorous effect. 

If you don’t want to make or host shows like that, it makes sense that you’re going to either have to build or find a new home, which is what Giada De Laurentiss did last February when she parted ways with the network after serving 21 years as a host and chef personality; she later revealed in an Instagram post that she had signed a multi-year deal for unscripted series production with Amazon Studios. 

In an increasingly mercurial streaming landscape, it also makes sense that one would want to be in the producer’s chair in order to make and actually distribute the kind of culinary work they want to see out in the world. I look, for instance, at Alison Roman; her CNN program “(More Than) A Cooking Show” was indefinitely postponed after the network canceled much of their planned original programming last year, whereas her self-produced YouTube series, “Home Movies,” has hundreds of thousands of viewers for each episode, with her 2022 Thanksgiving special netting 1.2 million views. 

It looks like, at least in part, that Ray will be making a return to stand-and-stir programming as part of her new venture. Per Variety, some of the new series under the new partnership with A+E will include “Rachael Ray’s Meals in Minutes,” in which “Rachael demonstrates her creativity and flare from her personal home kitchen, cooking a complete meal in minutes from comfort food to sophisticated fare for entertaining”; and “Rachael Ray’s Tuscany” with the cook putting “her own unique spin on dishes from the region.” 

Future series are to be determined. All projects produced by Free Food Studios for A+E will be executive produced by Ray in addition to Flanagan, Amoia and Lee.

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