Interview Date: December 3, 2015
Interview Location: New York City, NY USA
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Arenstein: Hi, I’m Seth Arenstein. Welcome. We are here in New York City. It’s December, 2015. We’re here for the Hauser Oral History Project for the Cable Center. And I’m joined today by the wonderful Brooke Bailey Johnson, who has recently retired.
Johnson: I’m two weeks away. End of the year.
Arenstein: For some reason, I thought it was August. OK, good. So you’re still in there. What are the last few things that you’re doing this last month that you said, “Gee, I’ve been at this network for a long time; there are a couple of things I want to do before I leave?” Is there anything on that list?
Johnson: Honestly, it’s mostly saying goodbye to people. It’s mostly having what we do very well at the Food Network, eating and drinking. Wonderful food, wonderful liquor at various wonderful establishments, so it’s tough duty, but someone has to.
Arenstein: OK, we’re going to get right into it, Brooke. You left the door open, I’m going to walk in. People think you have the best job in the business. You get to be around all these chefs and great food and entertainment and fun, as you said. Is it true? I mean, is there food constantly coming through your office?
Johnson: Yes. Completely. We joke at Food Network: when you come to Food Network, you gain—they used to call it the “Food Network Ten.” In my case it was the “Food Network Twenty.” I say this all the time. We are one of the very few TV networks where we are really experts at what we do. We have a thirty-member culinary department. So there is food constantly and plus people send us food all the time in hopes that they can get on one of our shows. So every countertop is filled with “Mrs. Brown’s Fudge” and it took me two months to gain twenty pounds and it took me about two years to lose it.
Arenstein: No, because you look great. And you know we had Michael Smith here and he’s like rail thin. But he rides his bike. What do you do, do you do any kind of exercise to counteract all the food?
Johnson: I do. I walk to work, which is a three-mile walk every day, which is what a lot of the chefs do. Bobby Flay and Mike Simon, they’re all exercise nuts. And I try to do portion control, which is what a lot of the female chefs do.
Arenstein: Let’s get into a little bit more nitty-gritty there. You walk into your office—does it smell good when you walk in there every day?
Johnson: First of all we’re in Chelsea Market, which is, even before you get to the offices, you’ve got Amy’s Bread and Sarabeth’s, etc., etc. So it smells good from the moment you walk into the building. But yes, there’s food everywhere and it’s great. We used to do a show called “Iron Chef America.” Very famous show. Sort of helped put Food Network on the map. When we taped, I would go up after the taping because they always had an extra secret ingredient. So when the secret ingredient was carrots, not so great. But when the secret ingredient was suckling pig or caviar or Bluefin tuna that had been flown in that morning from Hawaii, they would give me leftover ingredient with recipes and it was a sweet, sweet, sweet experience.
Arenstein: I’m so glad we’re taping this after lunch…
Johnson: No, it’s tough, it’s tough.
Arenstein: Talking about Iron Chef, I think—correct me if I’m wrong—you were one of the main driving forces behind Iron Chef America and as a TV critic, what I always loved about Iron Chef America is that you took the Iron Chef from Japan and you really didn’t mess it up. It was a great show. You Americanized it a very little bit but you really kept the flavor of that show. Pardon the pun.
Johnson: Totally. When I came to Food Network, “Iron Chef Japan” was one of the highest rated shows on Food Network. So out of the mouths of babes, I said, “Do we think this show might do a little bit better if you were in English?” Oddly enough, there were some people there who said, “No, no, no, it’s the kitsch factor.” But I said, “Humor me. Let’s just try it.” And of course, it was fantastic. And fantastic food. It was like a perfect Food Network show because you were doing something, you’re teaching people about food and cooking and it was just super-entertaining.
Arenstein: You know, that’s a point that Michael Smith made a couple days ago here. He said, “None of us, none of the executives from food or cooking came from food or cooking. We’re all entertainment people, we’re all TV people, and we learned about food on the job.” Is that the case with you?
Johnson: Completely the case with me.
Arenstein: So when you came to Food Network many years ago now—ten years ago?
Arenstein: Would you call yourself a foodie then or just somebody who knew a little bit more about food than the average bear?
Johnson: I’ve always loved good food. I’ve always loved going out to dinner. I’m not much of a cook. I can cook, but I’m not good at it. It’s a talent. And I don’t have it. But I’ve always enjoyed good food so that was a big plus. But I disagree a little bit with Michael. There are a lot of people at the Food Network that know a lot about food. The head of the production department when I came there had a culinary degree. A lot of people were there because specifically about the food. I was not. I was just there because it was television and a fun challenge. But I’ve learned to love food and I love the chefs. The chefs are just super-fun people. It’s the nature of the beast. As a gross generality, they are gregarious, they love food, they love drinking. They love serving people. They’re very generous and they’re business people so they have sort of like an art side and a business side. For me as a business person, it’s much easier to work with them than maybe it would be with an actor, for example.
Arenstein: Sure. Let me ask you this. Now that you’re the head of Food Network, does that put any more pressure on you when you’re entertaining at home? People expect you to make really good food?
Johnson: 100%. But what comes up even more often, two things come up. So I am out to dinner and people will say, “Oh, we should let Brooke order.” And I go, “No, you shouldn’t let Brooke order.” Or I have people coming to visit New York and they want me to recommend restaurants. “All right, well, there are about five hundred outstanding restaurants. What are you in the mood for?” So it gets a little tedious.
Arenstein: But let me ask you this: what about—you’ve got three meals left, retiring at the Food Network? Who’s going to cook those for you?
Johnson: That’s easy. It would be the New York-based chefs. It would be Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay, Michael Simon, Anne Burrell. People like that. And one of the great, great perks of my job is that these chefs—it is a labor of love for them. They all cook. I’ve gone on vacation with Rachael Ray and she cooks every single day. They never tire of it and to have a world class chef make a meal just for you is a really sweet experience.
Arenstein: I’ll bet. So if you could plan those meals what would you have?
Johnson: Honestly, whatever Bobby Flay wants to cook for me is what I want to eat. Because I trust them better and I want them to pare the wines and do the whole nine yards.
Arenstein: Ten years ago, the Food Network was pretty popular. Certainly I wouldn’t call it fledgling ten years ago. But now it’s huge. Was there any point in those past ten years that you said, “Oh, my goodness!”
Arenstein: A lot bigger than I thought when I walked in.
Johnson: Absolutely. I think most people looked at it as a successful niche network. No one ever thought it would first of all, be a top ten network. Who would have thought that? I certainly didn’t. I never had that as a goal. I would like to pretend that I did. But we just wanted to keep growing it, keep growing it. Add a little more entertainment. There was a little less entertainment in the old days. It was a little more cooking-oriented, a little less entertainment-oriented. So we thought we could grow somewhat but not to the extent it has. And I really think we caught the zeitgeist. I think there was sort of a virtuous circle where people were starting to be interested in a broader palate, a broader array of food, so they’d be introduced to new food. That was sort of exciting, and that would make them want to watch the Food Network, which would then make them want to try other kinds of food, which then made them want to watch the Food Network even more. So it was just this beautiful virtuous spiral.
Arenstein: You know it’s funny; I think about some of the things with the press and some of my fondest memories are meeting Emeril and having some of your parties at Emeril’s restaurants, Bobby Flay and all this. Other than like Animal Planet where they bring out little puppies for the reporters, it’s like the best publicity you can do.
Johnson: No, I couldn’t agree more. From a business point of view, it’s been a great boon. We entertain in our kitchen all the time. And again, to have a big star standing behind the range, the chef’s table, so to speak, and cooking for clients is a great plus.
Arenstein: So we were just looking at some video of you at your grad school, at Medill, and what was the plan when you were there at Medill? Cable wasn’t around; cable wasn’t an option at the time. What were your plans?
Johnson: I know I wanted to work in television. My dad worked in television, he was a TV producer, and he got the summers off. And I thought, man, that sounds like a really good job. So I wanted to work in TV, didn’t think I wanted to be a producer and I sort of thought I wanted to work at one of the three networks.
Arenstein: Let’s talk a little bit about your dad. What were some of the shows he was involved with?
Johnson: He produced “Truth or Consequences,” “This is Your Life,” “Name that Tune.” It’s interesting, I’ve always thought, that he started in radio so inside of my family, we’ve covered a lot of the gamut of electronic media in the history of this country. His parents were actors, they were stage actors, then he started in radio. Then when radio became television and then I started in television and that became cable television and now, one of my children of course works in digital media. So my family sort of spans the gamut there.
Arenstein: You’re also in publishing with the magazine.
Arenstein: So you’ve covered all the bases.
Arenstein: Is there a daily newspaper that’s calling for you…?
Johnson: Not yet.
Arenstein: By the way, you’re about to retire. What are you going to do with your retirement? You’re too busy to call it really “retirement,” right?
Johnson: First I’m going to do a little consulting for Scripps and I imagine there might be some other consulting gigs in my future. I’m an avid piano player so I’m going to practice the piano a lot more than I’ve had time to do. I’ve got two Steinways and so I’m really looking forward to that.
Arenstein: And what is your specialty? Is it classical, jazz, pop?
Johnson: Classical, all the way.
Arenstein: So being in New York has got to be…
Johnson: Yes, it’s heavenly. It’s just perfect.
Arenstein: Where were you born? Were you born here in New York?
Johnson: Los Angeles. Sort of a child of Hollywood.
Arenstein: How long have you been in New York?
Johnson: Oh, gosh, thirty years.
Arenstein: Is the family still out in California?
Arenstein: But you’re bi-coastal, I guess.
Johnson: Yes. I mean, I get out there quite a bit.
Arenstein: OK, so you’re out of Medill at this point. What’s your next move? Where are you going after that?
Johnson: I had a really stupid plan. I’m embarrassed to even reveal it. People had always told me that I had a beautiful voice, which I believed until the first time I heard it on tape and realized, why were they lying to me? So I had this idea. First of all, I had this journalism degree and so my plan I was going to be an on-air person and I would move from being on-air to off-air, which of course never happens. So I started off eventually as a news reader in Tucson, Arizona, and I hated every minute of it. I had stage fright, I was nervous every single morning, it was just painful. So while I was at the station, I moved in to on-air promotion. I was the assistant promotion director; there was not even a promotion director, and I cut promos for the news and the afternoon movie and I just loved it. Then I went from there to another television station, this time, WLS in Chicago and I think I started off as a production assistant. I produced the precursor to the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” which was called “A.M. Chicago.” Then I think I became assistant program director. I was there for about six years. Then there was an opening within ABC in New York to be program director of New York. So I pitched them, they hired me, so I moved from Chicago to New York. I was there for about six years and had the pleasure of launching the “Regis Philbin Show,” to which I take absolutely zero credit. That show was successful because of Regis; that’s the only reason. But it was still exciting to be there. And then I got a call from a headhunter that said that A&E was looking for a head of programming and was I interested? I knew absolutely nothing about A&E except it was called Arts and Entertainment, and I loved the arts. I love classical music so I said, “Oh, that sounds great. I’d love to do that.” And I had a very smart boss. His name was Walter Liss. He was the general manager and I went to him about it and he said, “Brooke, I think if they offer it to you, you should take it. We are dinosaurs, they are the future. I would take that opportunity if it presents itself.”
So A&E did offer me the job. I went there. When I took a look at the ratings, I de-emphasized the classical music push because it’s really hard to watch a symphony orchestra on TV. It’s not the right way to do it. Then I was there I think for about ten years. I then took a little time off to be with my kids. I took three years off and then I came back to Food Network.
Arenstein: While you were at A&E you had the idea for another network that has become a powerhouse.
Johnson: That would be the History Channel. I always thought it was very generous of the CEO to give me credit for that because really, anybody could have thought of that idea. My idea was just that we ran a lot of history programming on A&E. Operators were looking for new networks and I was scared to death that Discovery was going to do it because John Hendricks had already announced that he could spin off science, nature, history, aviation, you name it, and I said, “We have to do this before John Hendricks does it.” And eventually Nick Davatzes, the CEO, said, “I guess you’re right.” And we launched it and it just took off.
Arenstein: Now, however, you look at History Channel and a lot of people have issues with it. And other channels seem to me to be filling in the gaps. NatGeo is doing some great history. Smithsonian is doing a lot of great history. PBS always did and they still do. Although History, every now and then, History does come out with a really nice presentation about history.
But let’s get back to you. So then you go over to the Food Network. What drew you there?
Johnson: I was spoiled at A&E and History. It was so pleasant to be in TV and to be doing programming that enhanced sort of the cultural landscape. When I was in broadcasting, we put some syndicated shows on the air that I wasn’t incredibly proud of. So I looked around. I didn’t want to leave New York and what was available in New York that matched that criteria. Doing something positive. And really the Food Network just sort of leapt off the page. So it was my number one choice of a network that I wanted to work for, and I was deterred only by the fact that a really good friend of mine was president of the Food Network. So I had to convince her that I didn’t need to be a general manager, that I would be very happy going back to programming. “Oh, you can’t go back to programming. You were a general manager, you can’t go backwards.” I said, “I want to say first of all, I’m unemployed.” It’s so funny how people think, the way they think. But I just said, “No, no, no, no. I love programming, it’s my first love, it’s what I’m best at, I would do a great job for you. You ought to hire me.” She did. Five months later, she announced that she was leaving. She was going someplace else inside of Scripps so I had to say, “You know, I told you about that programming was my first love and I didn’t care that much about being general manager. Well, that wasn’t completely accurate.” So five months after I started as head of programming, I was promoted to president.
Arenstein: Who were some of the people in the programming area at Food that you enjoyed working with? I mean, I’m sure you’re going to leave some people out. We’re sorry about that. But some of the people from the ten years that you’ve been there even.
Johnson: Honestly, the thing that I’m proudest of at Food Network is that virtually every senior person who was there when I came is still there. So Michael Smith, who runs Cooking Channel. Bob Tuschman, who runs Food Network programming. Susie Fogelson, who runs Food Network marketing. They were all there. I think earlier in my career when I was less confident in myself—I did this, I would bring in people that I’d worked with before that I trusted, that I admired, what not. But I didn’t do it this time. And I’m really proud of this. These people are tremendous. They made whatever adjustments had to be made and they just grew and blossomed and they’re all fantastic.
Arenstein: You know, you mentioned the word—you were talking about something else and you mentioned the word “positive”—and that, of course, put the thought in my mind, Cable Positive. You were a founding board member of that organization. A lot of people who are watching this probably don’t even know what Cable Positive is. Why don’t you talk about that and what you did and how you were a founding member of that?
Johnson: I can’t remember the date, but it was at the height of the AIDS epidemic. I don’t take any credit for this. A nice guy whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten now approached me about being on the first board, and I was delighted to do it. I think appropriate to the Cable Center, cable does not get the credit it deserves for pro-social activities. Cable Positive is one of them. C-SPAN for heaven’s sake. What a tremendous resource that is! I’ll bet money that you could walk from here to the Statue of Liberty before you found someone who knew that C-SPAN was completely funded by the cable organizations. Cable Positive is just another example of cable reaching out and doing good things.
Arenstein: I know you’re active in a lot of hunger programs, but let’s do one more within cable and that’s WICT.
Johnson: WICT is a tremendous organization. I was on the foundation board for a while and I’m amazed—I’ve been in cable now for what, 25 years or something like that? People are as enthusiastic about WICT today as they were when it first started. The young women are so excited to be part of WICT, to go to a WICT event, to be on a WICT panel, it’s just tremendous.
Arenstein: Now what about the state of women in cable. When you started you were one of the pioneers. I still kind of blanch when people say, “The most powerful women in cable.” Why don’t we say “The most powerful people in cable?” What was it like when you started and where do we have to go now? How much more work do you have to do?
Johnson: I have said this many times. When I started in cable, there were no women in broadcasting at all. I mean, there was a handful of general managers at some stations. That wasn’t true in cable. There was Kay Koplovitz at USA, there was Gerry Laybourne at Nickelodeon. So I really felt that cable—I said this all the time. I thought that the very nature of cable, that these were these pioneering people—and I’m talking about the Alan Gerrys of this world and whatnot—that were doing this new thing. The newness of it, I thought, actually opened the door for women. Because it was less regimented, it was less old-school tie, it was less, “Oh, we played squash at Brown together.” So I think cable has always been a little bit ahead of the curve when it comes to women specifically.
Now, today: is it as good as it could be? No, but who is? But you’ve got Nancy Dubuc at A&E. I think cable can stand pretty tall on how it’s been. The Kaitz Foundation, NAMIC—I think cable has done a better job than most.
Arenstein: I agree.
Let’s talk about some of the anti-hunger programs that you are involved with, with Food. I think I read that you said that when you came to Food, you realized that all the celebrity chefs were already doing anti-hunger programs.
Johnson: When I said earlier that I had all the original staff—there’s one exception of that. He shall be nameless; he left but he was adamantly opposed to Food Network supporting hunger initiatives. Because he thought that Food Network was about celebrating food in copious quantities and it was just wrong. I thought it was the exact opposite. It’s when you’re sitting down to the Thanksgiving dinner with food overflowing that you’re thinking about people that are not as lucky as you are. So that was one thing. It was the absolutely right thing for Food Network to do.
Secondly, as you said, the chefs were doing it already. Every single one of them goes down and cooks in a food pantry or was involved in Second Harvest, the Food Bank for New York City. They were all involved in the Food Bank for New York City. So it was really just a question of which hunger charity are we going to devote the most effort to? We picked an organization called “No Kid Hungry” because a lot of the chefs were there already. They really liked them. We liked the way it was run; we liked everything about it. We still do a lot with Food Bank of New York City because it’s in our backyard, but we wanted a national charity as well.
Arenstein: I remember being at a taping of Emeril live and seeing how Emeril invites all the children up. It’s never on camera and he gives them ice cream and then I remember reviewing a documentary on Food Network about Emeril’s work with intercity schools. And again, he doesn’t want any kind of publicity. I went up to talk to him about it one time. He was cordial but he didn’t really want to talk about it. He just was very happy to do it, didn’t want to speak about it.
Johnson: Totally. For a while we did something that Emeril started, which was building vegetable gardens at schools. He started doing it down in New Orleans and we joined forces with a company that does these things. I don’t remember how many we did. It was hard to scale but that was a total Emeril idea that we just piggybacked on.
Arenstein: OK, let’s talk about the Cooking Channel and how it started and why it started. I guess in part it was defensive but part of it is offensive as well.
Johnson: It was absolutely defensive. Food had just exploded and everybody and his brother was doing some sort of food programming. I mean literally Syfy Network was doing food programming. History Channel was doing food programming. I mean you couldn’t find a network that wasn’t doing it. So we were afraid that someone might try a whole channel so that was the defensive piece.
The proactive piece or the aggressive piece was—it sounds silly, but 24 hours is not enough to cover the whole breadth of food. So we looked at it as an opportunity to get into some niches that we wouldn’t do on Food Network. So for example, we wouldn’t do Indian food on Food Network. It’s a passion for some, but not for the mainstream. So that gave us a chance to explore niches that we might otherwise have done particularly in terms of both international locations and international cuisines. Secondly it’s a bit of a farm team for Food Network, too, which is a plus.
Arenstein: Talk about getting some diversity at the Food Network and I think the Cooking Channel does this, too, very well.
Johnson: The Cooking Channel has been fantastic at it. I don’t think it is entirely coincidental that the general manager is an African-American. Which was a learning experience for me.
Arenstein: How so?
Johnson: Well, gosh, I thought I was just trying as hard as I possibly could to get African-American and Latino chefs on Food Network. But I didn’t do as good a job as Michael Smith did at it. So I learned from that—try a little harder. If it’s really core, if it’s really important to you, you’ll get it done. So Cooking Channel has been really useful to us in bringing in a more diverse cadre of chefs. As a general rule, the chef world is very male-dominated. It is a physically taxing—you don’t think about this, but it requires strength. You’ve got a pot this big full of boiling water, you’ve got to be strong to carry it. It doesn’t mean women can’t do it, but traditionally it’s been more male-dominated.
This is just an interesting little aside. Do you know the origin of the word “chef?”
Arenstein: No, I do not.
Johnson: Napoleon. “Chef” is French for “chief” and Napoleon wanted to make sure his troops were fed and so he organized the culinary group like it was a division of the army and he made the head of the cooks the chef and he put a little hat on him so that they would get the respect they deserve. But it’s kind of an army, military, male-y kind of thing. It’s changing more and more and more. But that made it a little bit challenging. Food Network was dominated by white male chefs. But that’s changed a great deal.
Arenstein: Right. You’ve had a career where you’ve gone from broadcast to cable. Can you compare the two? I know you were in broadcast a long time ago. Can you compare let’s say the working conditions, the type of people you meet?
Johnson: I can. It may be a little unfair, and maybe broadcast suffers a little bit unfairly in comparison but there are a lot of differences. I used to say when I first came to cable that in broadcasting, everyone knew the answers to the questions; it was just a matter of how well you execute it. When I came to cable, sometimes we didn’t even know what the questions were. So there was much more of a pioneering, make-it-up-as-you-go along, try some things, have fun, be efficient. The broadcast networks still have “how many programmers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” And cable has to be careful about that as it’s become so successful. You know, you start adding layers of people and layers of bureaucracy and layers of process, but as a general rule there was less—there still is—less of that in cable. So I think it’s a more fun sort of environment in which to work, and you see that in the quality of the programming on cable.
Arenstein: So we have a young woman sitting here. What do you tell her about going into cable today? What kind of advice do you give young people? I know you deal with Medill all the time and others.
Johnson: I do. First of all, they would all just love to work in cable programming, particularly the Food Network. If I had a nickel for every time…I say “go to,” and I give them advice on how you’ve got to network the heck out of it and talk to everybody you know and find out if they know someone who knows someone who knows someone. But it’s still just tremendously fun. I worry a little bit about on the production side because I have kids of this age now. I’ve never had a freelance job in my life. I know kids who’ve never had a staff job in their life. The production business is all freelance now. It’s part of that efficiency thing, keeping costs low thing. It’s a slight negative side to it, I think. I worry about kids in production. It’s a much harder row to hoe than it used to be.
Arenstein: And you’re bullish on television and cable generally, going forward?
Johnson: I am. I very much am. In contradiction to the endless pieces in the trades that you read constantly about the death of television. I have two kids. One subscribes to cable, one doesn’t and it’s directly because of economics. One can afford it, the other can’t. I think that it is still a tremendous value, the quality is unparalleled. And cable has been amazing at how it has changed, adjusted to technology, so there is a greater demand for mobility, there is a greater demand for what I want to see when I want to see it. But if you look at what Comcast is doing, I mean, they are working very hard and very intelligently to try to meet those needs. And they’ve done it now for however many years it’s been so I don’t see any reason why they won’t do so in the future.
Arenstein: When people meet you, not at television industry events but other events—cocktail parties, vacations—and they find out you’re the head of the Food Network. What do they say?
Johnson: Honestly most of the time the first thing they say is, “I love the Food Network.”
Arenstein: How does that make you feel?
Johnson: I say I never tire of hearing that. It’s one of the reasons—honestly it’s less the food part of it, though that is very pleasant, too. It’s more the fact that people love the network and it’s such a treat to work someplace where people love what you are doing. It was true of the History Channel, too, in the early days. And it was true for a while at A&E when Biography exploded. People just loved Biography. I don’t know if you remember that, but people just loved Biography. But still nothing like Food Network. They just love the Food Network. Why wouldn’t it be great?
Arenstein: And what is the most often asked question of you? Who’s your favorite chef, what’s your favorite show, what do they ask you?
Johnson: I get that. I get that. Who are you closest to? What’s your favorite show? What is so-and-so like? What’s Emeril like? What’s Bobby Flay like? Some of the questions you asked earlier, Seth, you know, where do you eat, what’s your favorite restaurant. (This, by the way, is my least favorite question.) Here’s one that might surprise you a little bit: what happens to the food? So I tell them that to the extent possible, we give it to food banks. But that’s a question that would never occur to me to ask. But people ask it all the time. What happens to the food?
Arenstein: For me, one thing that you do on Food Network—I’m kind of an addict to “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” and on certain nights during the week and on the weekends, you can watch it for hours. I tend to. So you must have done some research that says there’s a lot of people like me.
Johnson: It’s a tremendously popular show. Guy Fieri came out of a show called, “Next Food Network Star.” I think maybe it was the third season we did that show and proving that I, like all programmers, am wrong easily as often as I’m right, probably more so. I thought there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that Guy Fieri was going to be a star on—he won fair and square—but that he was going to be a star. We thought he was too hip for the room, the spiky hair, the bling, the white hip-hop guy thing, we just thought, never in a million years. And he just exploded. People just loved him. And they love him to this day. And the idea for the show is really just a title someone had. It was a cute title. And I thought it was going to be a big nothing. What is it, seven years later? Six years later? It continues to be one of our most popular shows.
Arenstein: The fact that other people, other networks who have, as you said, very little to do with food, have some big food shows. Does that validate what you’re doing at Food Network? Does it worry you? Or do you feel that all boats rise with the tide?
Johnson: Honestly, it worries me. I worry about over-saturation of the genre a little bit. But I feel like they’re moving away from it. There was a period a few years ago where it was just everywhere. I feel it’s not so much there now. The one show that I look at that is a little bit of a dagger through my heart is Gordon Ramsay in “Top Chef.” This happened before I got to Food Network; maybe it wouldn’t have changed even after I’d been there but we should have gotten that guy. He shouldn’t be on Fox. He’s a master chef and all that, a tremendous—that show should be on Food Network. “Top Chef” also is an irritant. Most people think “Top Chef” is on Food Network. I get it all the time. Those are the only two that bother me. More often people just do them but they don’t do them very well. And they don’t do very well.
Arenstein: Let’s talk a little bit about the digital era and food and cooking and what you all are doing in that. I mean, you’re so involved in the digital part of it.
Johnson: I think we were lucky with digital because it was a natural extension. So actually Scripps, before they bought Food Network, on HGTV they prided themselves on a call-in center. You could call and find out where you could get whatever lamp you had seen on HGTV. So when Scripps bought Food Network they did the same thing. You could call in and get the recipe. So it was obviously a lot more efficient to have a website where you could get the recipe. And we have three websites: foodnetwork.com, cookingchanneltv.com, and food.com. Between the three of them it’s like 40 million users per month. So they’re giant, giant sites and it’s been a beautiful thing for us because not only do we fulfill the viewers’ need, desire, for a recipe, but it’s also another little lab where we can figure out what people want to watch on television. So kind of a silly example might be that for the Super Bowl, which is actually a bit of a food holiday, the number one recipe people want for the Super Bowl is guacamole. We did not know that from TV. None of our chefs told us that but we learned about it online. It’s also a great place where we can do a little web series or it can be a little bit of a farm team, and if you work there maybe you move to Cooking Channel and then maybe you move to Food Network. So it’s been a content creator, a consumer service organization, obviously a great thing for advertisers because we sell a real triple play and then we can sell television, digital and a magazine, and so it’s been a great boon for us.
Arenstein: Talk about the relationship between you here in New York and the parent company, Scripps, in Tennessee, right?
Johnson: Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s been great. Scripps is very much a delegate, leave-you-alone, you do your job, thank you very much, organization anyway. The fact that they’re in Knoxville makes it even more so. When I started, honestly I wouldn’t hear from my boss like for two weeks, three weeks. And I thought, “God, am I doing such a bad job that they’re about to fire me?” But it’s just the sort of—seriously, a true story. But it’s just the culture of the place. So I think it’s less to do with Knoxville than it is about sort of a business philosophy of how to run a business.
Arenstein: A lot of people, I think, would get on me for not delving a little bit into Regis Philbin. You credited him for the success of the show. What’s he like to work with? Is he as much fun in person as he is onscreen?
Johnson: He is, completely. Though he has a side that not many people see and he’s a great worrier. He worries constantly about the show and have we booked the best people and what’s going to happen? This new show is running against us. When he first came to New York, he was very nervous about leaving Los Angeles. So he had a clause in his contract that was called the “misery clause.” That if he was so miserable in New York, that we would let him leave and go back to Los Angeles. So there’s a misery clause aspect to Regis. But having said that, no one works harder, no one is quicker on their feet, no one cares more about the show than Regis Philbin. And that makes him a joy to work with. And not a diva at all. Regis is not a diva at all.
Arenstein: Speaking about joy, this has been wonderful.
Johnson: It’s been my pleasure, Seth. Thank you so much.
END OF INTERVIEW