Interview Date: November 30, 2015
Interview Location: New York, NY
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Collection
Arenstein: Hi, I’m Seth Arenstein. I’m here for the Hauser Oral History Project of the Cable Center. It’s November 2015. We’re here in New York City with Michael Smith, the general manager of the Cooking Channel. Welcome, Michael.
Smith: Hi, welcome. Nice to meet you.
Arenstein: Michael, let’s talk about the early days for you. Your birth, your education, your career in television up to today and through today at the Cooking Channel. We have to begin, of course, by dispelling the notion that you eat 24 hours a day at your job. How much of your job is food? I mean, are you in an office that’s near the Channel’s kitchens or what’s the setup like?
Smith: It’s really been interesting how the channel has evolved. When I tell you the story of how food and production and the rest of our business go together, it really speaks to how we’ve grown. When I joined the company in 1998, we were in a tiny office here on 46th Street and 6th Avenue in New York on the 29th floor, and the entire company was probably in maybe about 4,000-5,000 square feet of office space. And you’re talking about the ad sales team, the programming team, the kitchens, the production team—all on one floor. There were crazy stories of how people would be on the phone closing sales deals and the production people would say, “Shh—can you keep it down a little bit? We’re about to start taping a segment.” Or you would be in your office working on a programming strategy plan and you could smell the food wafting through the floor. We’ve come a long way since then. Now we’ve got actually a separate production facility at Chelsea Market, the food market, we’ve got our ad sales here at 47th Street, we’ve got offices around the country. But, back in those days, it was pretty interesting.
Arenstein: And where are you situated today? Where are you sitting?
Smith: Our production end, what we call programming and production and marketing teams, are down at Chelsea Market, and that’s where the Food Network and Cooking Channel teams are. And then our ad sales and affiliate sales and business and legal teams are here in Midtown Manhattan.
Arenstein: But I would assume you get down to the programming area periodically and smell the food?
Smith: Actually I’m based in the programming office. We’re on the third floor, the kitchens are on the sixth floor along with our studio so one of the things that people tend to do is they know that if you go up to the sixth floor about 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, they’ve been testing recipes all morning for the magazine and for the website. So they obviously have great access to all the food but the people on the second and third floor will just sort of slip out of meetings and say, “I’m just going to go up to the sixth floor for a little bit.” Just to see if there’s any food left out. And then obviously when we shoot shows like “Chopped” and “Iron Chef” in our studios, a lot of that food is left over, too.
Arenstein: It just happens.
Smith: It just happens.
Arenstein: But, Michael, you’re razor-thin. How do you do that? How do you pull that off?
Smith: You know, for me actually, the move to Chelsea Market was a great health advantage for me because I used to walk to work about five, ten minutes here in Midtown where I live. When we moved to Chelsea Market, it’s difficult to get crosstown in Manhattan, so I started riding a bicycle. It’s been about eleven years I’ve been doing it. My wife said to me, “You’re not going to do that when it gets cold, when the winter comes.” I had sort of a personal bet with her and I’ve been doing it eleven years straight; I haven’t missed a day, rain or shine, but I think that has helped to cut off some of the eating.
Arenstein: OK, well, that’s good because they say, rightly or wrongly, never trust a thin chef, right? But anyway, it’s good to see that you’re in good shape and you’re bicycling.
Tell me, where were you born and tell me about your early years. Where did you go to school? What was your family like?
Smith: I’m a child of immigrants. I was actually born in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, which is near Edmonton, Alberta. My parents are both Jamaican. They left Jamaica—my mother left when she was 18 years old and went to London, England, to study nursing. My father left when he was about 22 and went to Toronto, Canada. Then my mother, after spending a few years in London, moved to Toronto and that’s where they met. Then they moved to western Canada, where I was born, and then they moved back to Jamaica when I was about two years old. I grew up in Jamaica and that really was the beginning of my interest in television. It wasn’t that I was a six-year-old saying, “I want to be Bob Iger,” but I really loved watching television. And in Jamaica at the time, there was only one television channel. So I remember during the summers, my mother would bring us to the United States just for a couple of weeks at a time to visit friends and I was so fascinated—I think I was maybe nine years old or so when I first came—and I was fascinated by the fact that there were five channels, six channels in some of these markets, and they had multiple shows you could choose from. I thought, this was amazing. Then we moved to America when I was about nine years old and from that time on, I loved watching television and I just became really obsessed with trying to find out more about everything that went into it. I remember I used to collect television guides, TV Guide magazines. I remember going to the grocery store with my mother and back then, it was 25¢ or 50¢, and I would save up, take my allowance and let my mom buy one issue every single week. And every week after my parents had been done with them and they wanted to throw them away, I said, “No, no, no. Let me keep them.” I used to keep them. I had a little box in my room and I stacked them up and I collected copies of TV Guides for years. And I remember I was just fascinated by the fall preview issue because it talked about all the new shows. I thought, who are the people who get to decide what shows go on? That must be the most amazing job. They’re the ones that decide what we watch and who are they, where are they? That would be something that would be great to do someday. And my mom was a nurse, my dad is a teacher so I didn’t have anybody in the family that had any connections to it. My only connection was I remember watching the Tonight Show and Johnny Carson would always say, “We’re here in beautiful downtown Burbank.” And I thought, well, that must be where they are. We were living actually in Upstate New York at the time and I thought, I’ve got to get to this downtown Burbank place someday. I remember in TV Guide at the beginning of the magazine they had the addresses of the networks, if you had comments or questions. So I remember that there was TV City on Fairfax Boulevard was where CBS was. And I knew that NBC was in Burbank. And I knew that ABC was at this place called Television City in Century Plaza. I had never been to California before but I knew that there was this fabled place where all these things took place. That started my obsession.
Arenstein: So you were obsessed as a young boy. After nine, you came to the United States. Where did you grow up?
Smith: We moved to Rochester, New York and spent a couple of years there. And then my parents actually got divorced and my mother moved to where she had some friends and family to help her—she was a single parent at the time. We moved to Berrien Springs, Michigan, which is in southwest Michigan just north of South Bend, Indiana. I went to middle school there and then I went to high school in Columbia, Maryland. My mother got a job with the federal government, with St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the mental health hospital in northwest Washington, D.C. I went to high school in Columbia. When I was a high school student I continued my interest in media and we had something called the media center, which was the people, kind of the geeks who do the film strips for classes and the slide shows. I was sort of the teacher’s pet of the woman who ran the media center and I remember I got into making Super-8 films, Super-8 movie films. During senior year, I made a documentary film about the year in high school. There was a popular film made in 1984, I think, called “All-American High School,” so mine was sort of a very, very small low-budget version of that, but it was a chronicle of the year at the high school I went to. Then I worked at the school newspaper, I was a photographer, just did a lot of creative things around media when I was in high school. Then I got a scholarship to go to Stanford University and this is where an interesting fork in the road because I was a really good science student. I had won a National Merit Award and I was good in science and math and engineering. My parents, especially my mother, really wanted me to go into engineering. She was just a little nervous about it. “What’s this television thing you want to go into? Show business? Are you sure? Do something really solid.” So I majored in industrial engineering when I went to Stanford and started out as an engineer and kind of put the media thing on the back burner for the first couple of years, at least as a student.
Arenstein: What was your first job out of college?
Smith: When I was in school, about halfway through, I decided I couldn’t put the media away. I was involved in something the Campus Entertainment Board, which was a group that I started with a couple of other students. I worked at everything from the ticket master, ticket booth, selling tickets, to concerts on campus. I worked on planning parties and events. By the time I got to be a junior, I evolved my major into something called “Science, Technology and Society,” which was basically a hybrid of engineering and communications. So it was sort of how science and technology synthesize with society and how you communicate those things to society and how innovations are communicated and diffused into society. So it was a good way to kind of bring some communications classes into my engineering background. And I got an internship when I was a senior at channel 4 television, which is KRON-TV in San Francisco, and another light went on because I was finally in a local television station and I saw the roles. I saw the local sales manager, I saw the research manager, I saw the creative services director, I saw the news director. I really loved the idea of being a creative services director. I loved the idea of the people that promoted and sold and marketed the programming. As a science and communications person, I was a left brain/right brain kind of person and creative services, I think, is one of the unique roles in the industry where you do combine both. You’re looking at the strategy of how to reach viewers but then you’re also shooting and writing and making promos for your station.
My first job after I got out of school was at the Young & Rubicam Advertising in New York. I tried to get a job at NBC, CBS, ABC; I wrote to all the networks. I still have the rejection letters actually in a closet at home from ABC and from CBS. But I read “Broadcasting and Cable Magazine” pretty religiously, and I remember reading that Grant Tinker, who was the president of NBC at the time, had worked at J. Walter Thompson. And I also remember reading that some of the other senior executives in television had worked at ad agencies. If you couldn’t get into a network right away, an ad agency might be a great place to get some experience and perhaps segue because the ad agencies have a very tight relationship obviously with the TV networks.
That’s what happened to me. I worked at Young & Rubicam for two years in account management and two years after that, just through a fluke I met someone on an airplane—I was actually coming back from my college roommate’s wedding in Houston and it happened to be the weekend (this was late February, late January), the weekend of the NATPE convention, the National Television Programming Executives convention. Everyone on that flight had these little tote bags with the logos of TV networks, and they had magazines and I noticed the guy sitting next to me was reading a broadcasting magazine so I struck up a conversation with him. I found out he worked at CBS. He worked in CBS affiliate relations. He said there was an opening in his department, that one of his peers had left, and I called the HR department and a few weeks later, I got an offer to go to work at CBS. That was my entrée into network television.
Arenstein: I hope you’re still friendly with that…because he really launched your career.
Smith: I tell young people all the time that there are three or four different ways that you can get jobs. One is through networking, through knowing people. Another one is through just blind cold calling. Another one is through answering ads. There is no one right or wrong way. In my career, I found jobs all three ways. This one I found just through bumping into somebody. My job at Disney Channel I got through answering an ad, and my job at Food Network I found just through cold calling. This one turned out well.
Arenstein: You also then got an MBA, correct, at Berkeley?
Smith: Actually when I was working at the TV station as a senior in college, I decided to go on and go straight through and get my MBA in marketing. And the reason I did that was because I really enjoyed—even today I’m a perpetual learner and just love school and I thought that if I got an MBA, I’d have a better shot at a getting management job in media versus starting out as a production assistant or as a news assistant at a local TV station. And it actually turned out that way. Having an MBA really helped me get the job at Young & Rubicam because back in those days they were really interested in MBAs as trainees to go into what they called the account management training programs. And also the networks too. NBC had a management training program—actually, this is a funny story. I applied for their management training program and I came to New York for the interview and stayed with a friend of mine who lives on Roosevelt Island. And anybody who’s been to New York knows Roosevelt Island is a tiny island about two or three miles—not actually two or three miles but about 500 feet away from the East Side of Manhattan. But the only way to get there, and this was in the 80s, was by a ski tram that goes between the island. I didn’t realize how long that took and how difficult that was. So I had a 10:00 AM interview with NBC and I left at 9:00 thinking, oh, I’ll be fine. It took ten minutes to walk to the tram; the tram only comes every half hour so I’m on the 9:30 tram. The tram takes 20 minutes to get across. I am at 9:50 and trying to get in a cab on the East Side and get over to 30 Rock and I got there about 15 minutes late. And the person who was doing the interviews said, “Sorry. We’ve got half hour slots.” I missed my shot at getting a job at NBC. I won’t mention names, but the person who told me, “That’s it,” actually still works in the business, and actually is a very senior person at HR, and one of our competitors. I always, when I see her, we get kind of a chuckle. She said, “Well, you know, guess it didn’t turn out so bad for you after all.”
Arenstein: Let’s go back to one bit, though. Your time at Young & Rubicam, do you feel, having been on that side of the business, helps you today?
Smith: Yes, I really believe to be a multifaceted or sort of well-rounded media executive, I think you have to understand all four pieces of what makes entertainment work, which I think there are two revenue side pieces, which are the ad revenue and the subscription revenue. It’s traditionally how we’ve always made money. People pay us for the content or we get people to pay us for access to the people who the content reaches. And then the other two sides of the business are making the content and then marketing the content. I think if you in your career, say you’re a general manager or a president of a network, you’re really overseeing those four pieces of the business. And having exposure to that throughout your career, I think, is really useful.
So I was fortunate in that working at an ad agency, I got a lot of exposure to the advertising side and also learned a lot about marketing and brand marketing, which helps. As the years have gone on, I’ve gotten exposure to the programming side and actually working at CBS and at the Disney Channel, I worked on the distribution and the subscription revenue side of the business. It wasn’t planned but it’s benefited me well.
Arenstein: OK, then as you said you got to CBS. What did you do at CBS and how long were you there?
Smith: I went to CBS mainly because it was a chance to actually work in television. I was working at an ad agency and this was like you get to work in that famed building, fabled building called “Black Rock.” I was affiliate relations manager, and what that meant and still means today—the networks have affiliated stations; they own some of their stations but the majority of them are not. They are owned by other media entities and so the affiliate relations person, their role is to maintain good relations between the local station and the network. So it’s a great job in terms of learning a lot about just the TV broadcast business in general, the local broadcast business, because what they do is they separate the country into regions and they assign each of the affiliate relations managers a group of TV stations that are sort of your list of stations that your job is to make sure they’re happy with CBS and they continue to be CBS affiliates and they don’t switch. In fact, when I was working there in the mid to late 80s, the Fox network was just launching. There was a lot of worry that the CBS stations might flip and become Fox affiliates. So it was really important that we maintained good relations with the stations and for a young kid fresh out of grad school, it was a great entrée to visit local television stations. I had the Rocky Mountain territory, which is Phoenix and Denver and even small markets like Glendive, Montana, and Casper, Wyoming. But you get on a plane and you go out let’s say to an Albuquerque, New Mexico, television station and you meet with the general manager to tell him about what the network is doing, get his feedback on things. I took that as a great opportunity just to pick their brains. These are guys who have been in the business for 20, 30 years. A lot of them started these small television stations in the 50s and 60s. And it was just a great, like a mini-university of learning about the broadcast business.
Arenstein: And for somebody like you, who as you said obsessed at a young age, this is like a kid in a candy store.
Smith: It was amazing to see also the diversity in how stations are run. When you go to a small station, let’s say in Chico, California, which has 15 employees. The person who is the sales manager in the morning puts on a tie and does the weather at lunch and then is back out doing sales calls in the afternoon. Then going to a station like Denver in the top 20 market where there are 300-400 employees—and yes, it was a great experience.
Arenstein: So then from there you did what?
Smith: What made me decide to leave CBS was I felt like I had learned a lot about how the business worked and just met some incredible people. But I felt like I was too much of an observer. As an affiliate relations person and especially in the mature network business, your job was really mainly to make sure nothing terrible happened, that you didn’t lose a station. You weren’t really driving growth and driving the business forward. I just felt like I wanted to be part of something where I can feel like I’m having an impact—like I didn’t just save a station from becoming a Fox affiliate, but actually created an opportunity for people to see some content. So I got a job at Disney Channel in what’s called affiliate sales and marketing. Disney Channel was only about four or five years old at the time and it was still trying to get more distribution throughout the country and also was trying to transition the network from a pay channel to a basic channel. So it was really a much more strategically aggressive role in the sense that you’re going out and meeting with the Comcast’s and the Time Warner’s of the world and various affiliate programming executives and you’re trying to figure out how we can get Disney Channel launched. And if we have Disney Channel launched, how we can get it transitioned into a basic service.
Arenstein: For our purposes here, it’s the first time you mentioned “cable.” You moved from the broadcast side to the cable side. And in those days—tell me, was it a big transition to make? I mean, in your crazy, obsessed six year-old days, had you thought much about cable or was it mostly broadcast?
Smith: My dream when I was a little kid was to be a general manager of a local TV station. There was a TV show called “WKRP in Cincinnati;” people probably remember. My dream was to be that guy in the office who was running the local television station. And when I met these general managers when I was at CBS in affiliate relations, I thought—especially if you’re in a medium-sized market, let’s say you’re the GM of a station in Sioux Falls, Iowa, you’re like the mayor of the city. You’re the big guy in town. You run the local television station. I thought, this is what I want to do. But the thing I started to recognize, especially near the end of my days there, was that there was a transition coming and it did seem that that business was maturing. There wasn’t a lot of growth. There was starting to be consolidation. Stations were starting to consolidate. Say two or three stations would be run by one person and they would let go a couple of others. It didn’t seem like a place for tremendous growth. Cable, there was growth. They were launching cable networks like crazy in the late 80s and 90s. Obviously when I went to Disney Channel, every year we were hiring new people, adding more subscribers, talking about launching new services. So when I got into cable, that’s why I’ve been in it for so long. I think it’s something that we over-emphasize is that we create these silos or these sort of differences in platforms. Even today we’re saying, “There’s the over-the-top guys, SVOD guys.” I think we’re still in the same business we’ve been in since the 1920s which is we’re just in the business of making entertainment and news and information and distributing it to people, and getting paid for it. And the technology and the platforms, yes, that’s always changed but it’s not really about that. I tell young people that all the time. If you’re really good at writing, you’re really good at making content, you’ll be fine no matter what the transmission technology or whatever happens. But you should look at the areas where there seems to be growth, where their consumers seem to be moving. That’s a place, if you’re a content creator and creative, then maybe move there. So cable was great in the 80s and 90s and today it looks like a lot of the new digitally-delivered services seem to be showing tremendous growth so maybe that’s a place that you look to go. But I didn’t look at it as, “I’m getting out of broadcast.”
Arenstein: So what did Disney Channel look like? How many employees were there when you started? It was still a pay service. There were no commercials.
Smith: Yes. Disney Channel in the early 90s was in about in six million homes. It was the fourth largest pay service at the time. The pay universe was very small. There was HBO and Showtime and then Cinemax. And the Movie Channel was even smaller at the time. And Starz was still a few more years off before it was going to launch. But I think Disney Channel—it was a part of the huge Walt Disney Company—we were in Burbank in the Disney complex so…
Arenstein: So you finally got to do that.
Smith: Yes, I did…
Arenstein: Was it beautiful?
Smith: It was actually. A couple of stops along the way—my first job was at Disney Channel’s regional sales office in New York. So I was responsible for selling Disney Channel into the cable MSOs that were in the Northeast region. Comcast was one of our big clients at the time, although at the time Comcast was only in about six million homes. They weren’t the Comcast they are now. There was a company called Cablevision which is still here in New York. That was one of my accounts as well. And then there was one called Continental Cable at the time, which later became acquired and I guess became part of Comcast. So I had those accounts here in the Northeast and we had about 30 people in the New York office here, but the majority of the company was back at the studio lot. So I still hadn’t gotten to Burbank. But after two years at Disney Channel, through a very, very fortuitous opportunity, I got moved to a job in Burbank, which was a story I still tell myself today. It’s sort of amazing to me how I went from working as an affiliate sales and marketing manager in the New York office to becoming a creative services director at this new channel in Burbank. That was probably the biggest break I think of my career.
Arenstein: And how did that happen?
Smith: It really was a testament to—even if you’re in a job that doesn’t necessarily use all of the skills or the interest and passions that you have, don’t let those go. There’s ways to pursue those outside of work and outside of what you’re doing. Don’t let your job define who you are. You define who you are. You are just doing a particular role or function. So I always saw myself as a very creative person ever since, as I was saying, in high school and college, in music and filmmaking. When I was a sales manager, we had a sales meeting usually in a resort city every year and at the conclusion of the sales meeting, we would have an awards banquet for the sales team. We would just have kind of a fun night. Then one of the other sales people and I had this idea, you know, why don’t we kick it up a notch and actually put on a little sort of “Glee”-like follies like an entertainment show, with some singing and dancing and some music? And at the sales meeting typically what happens is the sales force gets briefed by the people from the corporate office about the programming and marketing for the company. So people from the Burbank office came to talk about the Disney movies and the Disney programming so we would know what to sell. And they stayed over for our banquet.
I had written original music and produced a little mini-Broadway show literally about being a salesperson. And the theme of the show was—it was a spinoff on “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The idea was, if you remember “It’s a Wonderful Life,” James Stewart’s character was going to commit suicide because he just felt like what he did didn’t matter. And then he was shown how much it mattered. So my plot was there was a sales rep who couldn’t get Disney converted to a basic channel at Comcast and so was about to jump off a bridge, and our head of sales came down like Charlie the Angel (and actually his name was Charlie Nooney, who’s still in the industry) and he said to him, “Let me show you what the world would be like if there wasn’t a Disney Channel, and you’ll see how important you really are.” So there was a video that showed this apocalyptic dystopian world without the Disney Channel. There were original songs that we wrote about being a sales rep. We did a spoof of the song “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson, about going to cable operators. It was a full 45-minute show. And a few weeks after that, I get a call from my boss saying that the people in Burbank, at the programming and creative part of the channel, wanted to talk to me about a job in creative services. I flew out there, had my suit and tie on like a good affiliate guy and the first thing they said to me was, “Take off the tie.” And I became the creative director for the Disney Channel.
Arenstein: I’m not sure which is a better story—that one or the airplane. I’m not sure.
Smith: So that began the next 14-15 years of my career really in creative services and marketing and creative advertising in cable for Disney Channel. And then I came to Food Network as a creative director and VP of creative.
But it was really an amazing opportunity because outside of work, when I was an affiliate salesperson, I still maintained a part-time business as a photographer, shooting head shots and model portfolios for people here in the city of New York. And I also wrote music for up-and-coming singers. So I was kind of wearing my business suit in the day then coming home at night and becoming a musician and becoming a photographer and just being a creative person. Finally, I had a job now, when I moved to Burbank, where I could, where I was doing creative and the creative services team for Disney Channel was about a half a mile away from the Disney studio on Alameda right in Burbank, right across from the NBC offices, and right next to Chadney’s, which is an old restaurant where the Tonight Show people always used to hang out. If you’re a Carson fan, you’ll remember he mentioned Chadney’s.
So here I am sitting in Burbank right next to Chadney’s, across the street from the Tonight Show. So it all came full circle.
Arenstein: That’s great. I don’t want to gloss over your musical and photographic talents. Do you play an instrument?
Smith: I had always been the kind of person that if there was something that I liked, I would just want to try to figure out how to do it myself. Which is ironic now working for Scripps because our networks are all about that, about the DIY Network and the Cooking Channel. And I love music and so I bought a guitar and I bought one of these—they call the “Ernie Ball Guitar Tab Book”—to learn how to play songs. And I taught myself to play. I bought a little Casio tone keyboard and taught myself to play the keyboards. I remember I said, “I’d love to make my own songs and record them.” There was a group of records you could buy called “Drumdrops.” This is getting a little technical, but basically it’s an LP record with just drumbeats. What you do is you play the music through your stereo and you get a boom box and record the drumbeats while you play the bass guitar along with the drumbeats. Then you take that cassette and put it in another player and then play that and play guitar with it. You keep layering that back and forth and you can actually build songs. That’s what I taught myself to do until I finally got out of school and had enough money to actually buy a little multitrack recording device and got more sophisticated with it. I’m not an expert virtuoso with any instrument, but I can play guitar, I can play the bass, I can play the piano.
Arenstein: What about photography?
Smith: Photography was really about when I was on the school paper in high school. I bought my first camera, I think, I was 13-14 years old. I had a darkroom downstairs and I remember teaching myself first to develop film in the little tank and pouring the chemicals in, pouring them out, hanging it and then printing the photos. Back in those days you took the photo paper and put it in a developer and then in a stop bath and then in a rinse and then you hung them up to dry and everything. Then I continued to do that.
Arenstein: So there is no reason to ask you whether your musical and photographic talent and training helps you today. I’m sure it does.
Smith: You know, I think what it is is we’re in the entertainment business. We’re basically creators and curators of entertainment, and I think whether you’re a photographer or a musician, a television producer, your job is to figure out how do I create something that is going to engage people and also how to understand how to package and how to put it together in a way that’s really going to make people engage. You think about that when you’re a photographer. You’re taking a photograph of an actor or model, you’re thinking, how do I like this photo? How do I compose this photo that’s going to help this person get more work if it’s a head shot? If it’s writing a song for somebody, say an up-and-coming singer, what’s the sound I’m going to use that’s going to hopefully get this person work that the public seems to like? You’re always thinking in that same mode, you’re just using different creative tools, whether it’s writing music or taking a photo or it’s writing a TV script or it’s putting together a cooking show demonstration—you’re still using those skills. In fact, that’s one of the things I think that we’ve cracked with Food Network and Cooking Channel is that we figured out how to add that entertainment layer to food to really take it to the next level. If you look at the people who’ve been in leadership and creative at the Food Network, none of them come from the food industry. They all come from television, starting with Brooke Johnson, who created the Regis and Kathie Lee Show and ran programming at A&E. Bob Tuschman, who was on Good Morning America as a producer. Kathleen Finch, who worked at Food Network for a long time and then was a producer at CBS News. We’ve all came from entertainment backgrounds and we’ve said, “How do we take what’s the best of making great entertainment and apply it to this topic area?”
Arenstein: Just before we leave the Disney Channel, what were some of the big shows while you were at Disney Channel? I would assume Lizzie McGuire was around?
Smith: I left right before the Second Renaissance, which is where you had the That’s So Ravens and the Lizzie McGuires. When I worked there, there were shows—actually going back to them—the Mickey Mouse Club is probably the most famous show that we did I think especially because of the people that came out of that show, people like Brittany Spears and Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. Then we did a lot of original movies that were really successful. Actually one of the interesting things about the channel was that we transitioned the content away from a blend of kids and adult programming to really pure kids’ programming. When the channel was a pay service, the philosophy was that because the parents actually pay the bill and kids go to bed, one of our taglines was, “Disney Nighttime—Because Kids Go to Bed.” So we had a block of programming at night that was for adults. And the thinking was that as a pay service, you have to do things that are going to make the parent sign that check for nine dollars a month. When we decided to move it more to a basic service, we realized that it was really more about generating eyeballs and ratings against kids and not as important to get adults. So we started to do the program more for kids.
Arenstein: All right, so let’s move on to Cooking and Food Network. There were a couple of intermediary stops but let’s get you at the Food Network as marketing and creative. And we’re talking about what—1998?
Smith: Yes, 1998. This was when I talked about how you can find jobs through different ways, whether it’s through networking, or through an ad or through just cold calling. This was actually a cold call situation. There was a book back in those days called “The Television Red Book.” It was a book that had a directory of every single television network, the executives, the location, and one afternoon I decided to sit down—actually it was a series of afternoons—and just write letters to every single head of marketing at a hundred different cable networks and television channels to try to get a more senior job in creative and marketing. Out of a hundred letters, I got four responses. If you’re a marketer, not bad. One of the responses was from Food Network. They were looking for a vice-president of creative services for the channel. The channel at the time had been launched at the end of 1993, beginning of 1994, so it was going into its fifth year and they had been outsourcing actually most of their marketing and creative to agencies, and they wanted to really build up their in-house capabilities. So they wanted a creative services head.
That’s when I came and we had a tiny team. We had five people in the beginning. The irony was when I was working at Disney Channel, and Disney and ABC had merged in the mid-90s so I was also overseeing creative for kids’ programming on ABC, we had a larger budget just for the Saturday morning cartoons on ABC than the entire Food Network marketing budget. But even though it was a smaller place, the thing that was exciting about it is that it was really a brand. Kids’ programming at ABC was not as much a brand; it was really more of a part of general entertainment network, and at Food Network we really were trying to create something that was more than the sum of its parts, something that really resonated with people because of what they thought was on the channel, not necessarily what was on the channel. That was what we were really trying to create.
Arenstein: How many homes was Food Network in at that point?
Smith: When I came, there was about 25 million homes. One of the first ads we did when I got there was that we had gotten to 30 million, and then I think two years into it we did our first 40 million ad as well. But we were really small. Cooking Channel launched as a larger network than Food Network was when I came to Food Network, when I got there.
Arenstein: And who were some of the people both on camera and off camera at Food Network when you first got there and during your career? Who were some of the people who influenced you, some of the people you got to work with?
Smith: I think from the consumer part of it people would remember the most popular person on Food Network in 1998 was Emeril Lagasse, and “Emeril Live” was the most popular show. Then there were people like Mario Batali, had a show called “Molto Mario” that was really popular. Sara Moulton had a show called “Cooking Live,” which was really popular as well. So those were among the bigger stars. Bobby Flay was not one of the bigger stars at the time but did have a show, and it was starting to bubble up. Alton Brown had just launched “Good Eats,” and it was starting to bubble up. Those, obviously, two guys have gone on to become two of our biggest stars. But in terms of the people I worked with, one of the biggest influences on me at the time was Judy Girard. Judy was the president of the network from 2000-2005, and she was really instrumental in supporting the marketing and branding that we wanted to do. One of the things I argued to Judy was that we really needed to start to change the perception of the channel from being a utilitarian place to come and learn to cook, and really make it feel more like an entertainment place. I use the analogy that you wanted it to feel like going out to dinner on your birthday. It’s that feeling of, yes, there’s food, but it’s a happy, exciting energetic experience. It’s not like going to a cooking class. And I think the channel up until then had been seen more like sitting down in front of a chef and learning how to cook. We wanted it to be more like you’re going to a party where there’s a lot of food. That was the first step in transitioning the channel from being a utility channel to really being a mainstream entertainment channel.
Arenstein: Of course, “Emeril Live,” that was a cooking show, yes, but it was really also very entertaining. I mean, that’s what he did. He was an entertainer and he had a band…
Smith: Doc Gibbs.
Arenstein: Doc Gibbs. And his interplay with Doc Gibbs was to me some of the best part of the whole show.
Smith: We were fortunate in finding talent and I think this was, especially people like Judy and then later, Brooke, who came from local television backgrounds. They oversaw the programming for local stations so they were looking for anchors and weather people and they knew how to find talent. So they looked at it through the lens of this is like finding a great weather guy, this is like finding a great sports guy. This isn’t necessarily going to Johnson & Wales and finding the best chef. This is the best entertainer.
Arenstein: So let me ask you this. A guy who is so multitalented such as yourself, did you have any trepidation about going to Food Network? I mean, you did explain earlier that most of the executives came from entertainment. Still, did you have any pause, or did you know a lot about food, to Food Network first?
Smith: I was not a foodie myself. I didn’t cook a lot. And I did have some trepidation in the sense that the scale and the fledglingness of the channel was a little scary. I remember talking to my wife about it; she’d never heard of Food Network, and I told friends at Disney Channel about it, and most of them thought, when I said Food Network, they thought, are you talking about some sort of charity that provides food, a network of food banks? They didn’t understand. And there was one guy in the office who actually watched Food Network. He was sort of a foodie and he knew about it. Out of 30-40 people, he was the only guy that was like, “Oh, no, I watch it—it’s amazing! It’s great, it’s great!” And was actually excited about it. So when I came to interview with them, I had no idea what the channel was about. All I knew was that it was a really interesting challenge, I thought, though, to try to take a passion niche area and apply entertainment strategy and technique to it and really take it to the next level. So that was the part of it that made it sound like an exciting job and challenge to me. This was in 1998 so I had a lot of friends at the time who were going to dotcoms. I actually had interviewed at a couple of dotcoms as well. So I think this entrepreneurial, take risk—it was a time, I think, that it didn’t seem so crazy. I had friends that went to work at Yahoo, it was just starting, so I thought, why not, give it a shot.
Arenstein: Would you consider yourself a foodie now?
Smith: I think when you’re immersed in the world of chefs and food experts and great restauranteurs, you just can’t help but develop a respect for it. And then just a taste. One of the things that people maybe that are not as sophisticated about food that makes them that way, I think is not that they couldn’t be that way, it’s just a lack of knowledge and sort of the fear of it that it’s too complicated, there’s too many—what’s a Bartlett pear vs. a Bosc pear. Just give me a pear. But I think as you start to learn more and it gets demystified, and that’s what our programming I think does so wonderfully for people, you realize it opens up a whole world. It’s like, well, no, I do want a Bartlett pear because you know it has a little bit different flavor and I really like it that way. If you look at what’s happened in American food today, I think from all walks of life, the sophistication has grown. You walk into a grocery store, and when I was a kid, you had Special K and there was one Special K. Now there are seventeen different versions. There’s the yogurt honey-nut version. And consumers, regular middle American consumers, they want that honey-nut yogurt Special K. Or you walk into the soda aisle, at least when I was growing up, it was Coke, Pepsi, Sprite, maybe Dr. Pepper. Now there’s 85 different beverages from bottled waters to…So I think that the American public has just become just much more—I call it the “fetishization” of food. That food has always been one of those things that’s a great source of pleasure and connection, but we’ve just taken it to a whole other level. I think we’ve been part of helping people understand that it’s one of the least expensive and most accessible ways to bring joy to your life. Buying a house, buying a car, taking a vacation, much harder than—you can go to that cool little food truck and get that wonderful taco or stop off and get that wonderful Cronut and just for fifteen minutes have that little moment of magic in your life.
Arenstein: Let’s transition to the Cooking Channel. Why the Cooking Channel? I think we still have to ask the question, “What’s the difference between the Cooking Channel and Food Network and has that answer evolved since the Cooking Channel started?” When did the Cooking Channel start, how did the idea come about? I think it had to do with maybe, as you said, the fetishization of food, and also that the broadcast networks were starting to go into food. Was that part of the calculus?
Smith: It came from the fact that the interest in the category had just really exploded in the mid-2000s. Food Network in 2002-2003 was the number 35th, maybe at one point the 40th-ranked network in all of television. By 2009, it was a top ten network. So we had seen tremendous growth and interest in what we were producing on our one 24-hour a day platform. Then we saw that the demand was more than what we could feed. Because then you started to see—
Arenstein: No pun intended.
Smith: A good analogy would be say you’re a restauranteur and you’ve got lines around the block and then somebody else opens up another restaurant down the street, and a couple other restaurants down the street and we started to see that. We saw TLC and Bravo and ABC and NBC and other networks putting food shows on. And doing very well with them. So we knew that if we didn’t do this, somebody else—and we’d heard rumblings that maybe Discovery or Turner or other people were thinking about launching fulltime food channels. So we thought both an offensive move to take advantage of the growing market and then a defensive move to prevent competition in the space. So we said it’s time for a second channel. Now what the channel would be and how we would differentiate it, that was really a fun strategic part for us. We thought about the ESPN model. ESPN had done ESPN and ESPN2, and they had kind of the multiplex model where it’s just many screens so if you don’t want to watch the Ohio State-Michigan game, you can watch the Stanford-Notre Dame game. So it’s the same ESPN but just multiple portals for it. So we thought about that model. We thought about maybe we would call it Food Network 2. It’s just that if you don’t want to see a hot dog show, you can see a pie show. But then we—and this is credit to our CEO, Ken Lowe, who really felt that if you’re going to create any brand and have any long-term value, it really needs to be a distinctive brand. And I agree with him. I always use the analogy that if you look at the top 100 most valuable brands in the world, none of them are called “2.” There’s no Apple 2, there’s no Google 2. They are individual brands, so if we are in this to just take Food Network and just add a few more screens to it, let’s call it Food Network 2. But if we’re really about creating another brand that could become a huge asset for the Scripps Company, let’s make it its own thing. And that’s why we decided to call it Cooking Channel and really figure out how we could make it stand on its own and figure out what the difference would be. And the difference has been that Food Network we’ve really taken to a place of entertainment and really high energy storytelling through competition series and reality series about food. Restaurant makeovers and food competitions. And one of the things that happened when we did that was that we left behind a lot of the more traditional cooking information programming. And cooking and sort of travel programming and visiting restaurants and seeing how foods are made. We saw there was still a lot of interest in that among Food Network fans and among younger millennials who were growing up. They are really interested in sort of the nuts and bolts of food and we saw that people wanted a little more unplugged version of Food Network. What Cooking Channel has been is a nice complement. So when you’re watching “Chopped” on Food Network, you can switch over to Cooking Channel and you can see Tiffani Faison and some of her Hollywood friends making a traditional dish.
So I think that’s how we’ve differentiated the channels. And the other thing that’s nice about having a second channel is that it serves almost as an indie studio, like a development place. There have been shows that we’ve sort of nurtured on Cooking Channel and then we found talent and formats that we’ve moved to Food Network.
Arenstein: What you’re very proud, I think I’ve read in the notes that you’re very proud of the amount of original hours, original programming hours on…
Smith: Yes, we really are. One of the things the cable operators asked us to do, required us to do when they agreed to pay us a license fee for the service was that they wanted it to really be have original content. I think a lot of cable operators were concerned that “I don’t want to double-pay for a re-purposed channel.” Cooking Channel has a requirement that a majority of its programming be original programming and not be re-purposed or library programming. So that requires us to produce a lot of shows. And we do and we’re proud that they have been successful, so successful that—there was a network called Fine Living, which was the network that we re-branded, we’ve almost tripled the ratings of Fine Living from when we flipped it in May of 2010 to where we are now at the end of 2015. And just even from the time of launching, we’ve doubled the ratings from the end of 2010 to where we are now. So the original programming has been working. I think it’s really struck a voice with younger viewers and also with very diverse viewers. We have talent like Rev Run from Run-DMC, Tia Mowry, Patti LaBelle, Aarón Sanchez, Ching-He Wong, who was nominated for an Emmy. We have a real nice variety of Asian and Latino and African-American talent which we think is really tapping into the Millennial audience, which tends to be a lot more diverse.
Arenstein: I mean I know that’s one topic that you’re very, very proud of at Cooking Channel and also an area that you’re very interested in in diversity. You know, rightly or wrongly, Food Network was sometimes said to be not terribly diverse on camera. I think to Scripps’ credit, it has changed that pretty well. I’m sure there’s more to go, but you talk a little bit about diversity and how important it is to you.
Smith: Yes, diversity, I think it’s important for a couple of reasons. The traditional reason has been more the social responsibility reason, that it’s the right thing to do, to provide opportunities both in front of and behind the camera for the wide fabric of people who make up our society. If you’re a corporate citizen in America, you should be doing that. But I think that argument had always been the primary argument in media, going back to the days of making sure there was diversity in ownership in media and the FCC had rules and newsrooms had programs. But I think it never really clicked when people felt like it was one of those sort of “take your medicine” things. Somewhere along the last maybe five-ten years, it’s become a real business priority because it’s the way to make money. It’s not altruistic. You just look at the reality of the United States. Like in California. 50% of the kids in elementary school are non-white. And right now 32% of all Americans are non-white and by the year 2050, more than 50% will be. So if you’re in the business of making content and making money off of it, that’s your audience. And I think you see a show like “Empire” on Fox, it would be the hottest show on television with a predominantly diverse cast. That’s not a social experiment, that’s just what the audience wants. So I think that’s what we recognize. One of the things we’re proudest of at Scripps is when you think about twenty years ago who the big brands were in food and home, they were brands that were owned by Meredith, by Hearst, Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping. There was no such thing as Food Network or HGTV. Now twenty years later, who are the biggest brands in those spaces and they are Scripps brands. That doesn’t mean that twenty years from now the biggest brands are going to be somebody else’s brands unless we’re nimble and we’re responsive to the audience and we make the content that the 22 year-old today who’s going to be 42 and really been buying a house and really in a sweet spot in twenty years will be—so that’s another reason—to me it’s the fabric of our business strategy.
Arenstein: Speaking about business strategy, one thing that a lot of people probably don’t know about you is that you answer your own phones. Why do you do that, Mike?
Smith: I have always had a philosophy of—and I learned this actually, it goes back to Gary Marsh, who I used to work with at Disney Channel years ago and he is now the president of Disney Channel, but he was head of programming back in those days. And I remember an experience that we were on the set of a TV show, it was about 7:30 in the morning, we were getting ready to shoot at Walt Disney World, and they were running a little bit behind schedule. The guys were setting the lights up and setting up all of the production stuff and Gary took off his jacket and started putting sandbags on the light stands. And I think, if this guy is the head of programming, the head of original programming, and I asked him later on and he was like, “You know what? We are here to make shows. It’s not about your ego, it’s not about who has a corner office or who has this, it’s about getting it done.” So I’ve always been about what’s the most efficient way to make great content for our viewers. So for me, answering my own phone, I guess if I had so many phone calls that were bothersome phone calls, I guess I would want someone to answer my phone. But I realized, you know, most people who call me, have a reason to call me. I don’t get just a random, “Hi, this is Larry from Kansas.” It’s usually producers or people that need to talk to me. So why do I need someone to screen that? I’m always about the most efficient ways to get things done. I think a lot of people grew up in the business; they remember a time before email, before Microsoft Outlook, yes, you needed to have a phone screener because that was the only way to communicate. Nowadays you think about how often you get phone calls ever. Very rarely. People email you. So you answer your own phone. It’s no big deal.
Another thing is I think that I’ve always been impressed by people who never perceived themselves as being different from the people that they’re working with. That whatever your title says is not really important, you’re just part of the process.
Arenstein: I agree. A couple of last questions, fun questions. I don’t want you to insult anybody or leave somebody out but if you had a couple of meals to eat, who would be cooking them for you and whom would you like to cook for?
Smith: Oh, when I cook—for me to cook, I make really good banana pancakes. So you have to pick your lane, pick those things that you do really well and so there are a few dishes that I like to make that I probably would be happy to make for everyone. But in terms of who I would want to cook for me, there’s a wide variety of people. I like experimenting and trying and learning things through food so I love Aarón Sanchez is really great, Latin flavors. In terms of flavor things through food so I actually sort of like a sweet and spicy, so I love Bobby Flay’s food. Sort of the Tex-Mex, the influences that he puts in all of his foods. In terms of bold favors, Emeril Lagasse does a great job of kind of bouncing really bold bam kicking up flavors with sort of a French sophistication as well. There are so many wonderful people doing things with food.
I also love some of the food trucks. There’s a food truck here in Manhattan on 45th and 5th that has been there for like 16-17 years. The guy used to cook at the Russian Tea Room. He makes this really great lamb over rice. In fact, Bobby’s featured him on one of his shows. And he’s still out there and anytime I’m in Midtown, I still go, I still check him out.
The great thing about food, I tell people is—and I say it’s one of the challenges for Food Network and the Cooking Channel versus our other sister brands—HG and DIYs. When you buy a house, it’s something you do once in a while and once maybe every ten, fifteen years, and it’s a really big deal because if you get it wrong, it’s a big deal. Which is why their programming is very compelling, House Hunters and those shows, because it’s such an important thing. The challenge for us is that if you eat a meal, no matter how awful it is, you’re going to have another one in four hours. So it’s never that big of a deal.
Arenstein: For some of us, fewer hours than that.
Smith: As a content genre, it makes it tricky because how do you make that feel as important to people? Because there is a certain sort of, is it really all that important? But we do that through big personalities, interesting formats and just great production. But that is the fun part of it.
Arenstein: Michael, this has been a pleasure and it’s almost time for lunch. Thank you so much. It’s great.
Smith: Thank you.
Arenstein: Is there anything that—?
Smith: I didn’t get to tell the story about—I think somebody had asked—oh, you asked me about a food anecdote.
Smith: Or a food story, I guess, and I was thinking—
Arenstein: Emeril making midnight snacks for you.
Smith: One of the coolest food experiences, especially for someone who is not a foodie and not a trained chef, was that I was asked to judge the “Best Teen Chef” food competition, which is put on by the Art Institute. This was about six or seven years ago. And it meant going down to Houston and there were about 70 contestants from around the country, and I was on the panel with four other real chefs, real food experts. Our job was to taste 70 vegetable soups, bisques, sort of puréed, because the contestants all had to cook the same thing, and 70 chicken entrées. So we spent the entire day tasting each one of these and they gave me a chef jacket with my name on it and everything, and it was just such a kick to feel like, OK…I was kind of nudging the real chefs like, “What do you think of this one?” But after 70, there was a difference between a really good squash bisque and a not-so-good squash bisque.
Arenstein: What about Emeril cooking midnight snacks for you?
Smith: Every year we have the “Food Network South Beach Wine and Food Festival,” and we have it here in New York as well. But if you go to them, there are a lot of events that you buy tickets to and you get to see the chefs. But they have an after-party, what is called sort of the “chefs’ after-party,” which is in a secret location that they just sort of whisper around to other chefs and it’s usually between one and four a.m. in the morning at the end of each night. And that is an amazing treat, because if you get to go to that party, usually they’ve rented out a few hotel suites or part of a restaurant and an all-star who’s who of chefs just drop in, and just start cooking for each other. Emeril walks in and, “I think I’ll throw together some sliders.” Chef Morimoto makes a little sushi for a few people and they make it for each other and they just hang out. But if you’re as fortunate as we are, some of us at Food Network, to be in that room, there’s nothing like walking into the kitchen and seeing a world-renowned chef saying, “I’m about to make a couple of burgers. What would you like?” It’s a treat.
Arenstein: Michael, we’re talking about diversity, we’re talking about so many interesting and so many great life lessons that you had. Talk about what these oral histories have meant to you. I know you’ve watched a few of them and were influenced by them. And now here you are doing one yourself. You talked about the full circle with downtown beautiful Burbank or beautiful downtown Burbank and here we are doing an oral history with you.
Smith: I think that things like the oral histories are really important because for a lot of us, especially people of color who don’t see a lot of role models in the industry. For example, you look at the top 500 companies in America—only five of them have an African-American CEO. So for a lot of young people, when you think about how high you can aim in your career, it’s a lot easier when you actually see somebody that looks like you that’s achieved the goals you want to achieve. And I had the privilege over the years of watching a lot of these oral histories and seeing ones with people like Doug Holloway, who was one of my idols in the industry. And just the fact of seeing that this person has been that successful, but also learning from what they talk about in their interviews, has been really, really valuable, and I hope that being here and being part of it provides information or at least provides information for other people that come after me.
Arenstein: I’m sure it will. Well, thank you again. It was fun, it was great.
Smith: All right. Thanks, Seth.
END OF INTERVIEW