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GUEST BLOG #82: Tom Brinkmoeller Considers the Endangered Pioneers of "How-To" TV
March 17, 2010  | By Tom Brinkmoeller

[Bianculli here: Contributing writer Tom Brinkmoeller follows a lot of public TV and informational cable TV shows. And when some of them began disappearing from his television set, he decided to keep following them, and find out where they went and why...]

Recession Puts TV Innovators on Endangered-Species List

It's safe to guess that public-TV icon and master carpenter Norm Abram and producing legend Steven Bochco seldom, if ever, have crossed paths. Just as it's a pretty sure bet that TV master chef Sara Moulton and TV legend Sid Caesar never talked television. Still, these four equally share the title of TV innovator.

Bochco set all-new criteria for prime-time drama when he co-created Hill Street Blues in the early '80s; Caesar starred in, and was the driving force behind, groundbreaking live television shows in the 1950s.

Abram was part of a small team that gave birth to and grew how-to television on a national scale when This Old House debuted -- two years before Hill Street. For 21 seasons, starting in 1989, Abram further built his reputation as the standard by which all TV home-improvement shows should be measured as host of The New Yankee Workshop. A couple of cable networks overflow with shows that trace their heritage to these two long-running Abram shows.


Moulton's groundbreaking was done at a kitchen counter. Caesar's many once-a-week programs were masterpieces of timing, planning and improvisation -- all done without the safety net of videotape. For six years, Moulton hosted the hour-long Cooking Live series on the Food Network five nights a week -- and the word "live" means just that: with sharp knives, live flames and real-time call-in questions from viewers.

For a while she did two live shows a night. As ER and The West Wing proved when those series went live in prime time, a live show done well is excitingly creative. When Cooking Live ended in 2002, there were more than 1,200 of them in Food Network's library. It's a record that probably never will be duplicated.

Despite their accomplishments, the visibility of these two innovators has decreased. Abram recently said he regained about 150 days a year when New Yankee Workshop stopped production and he turned his TV efforts only to This Old House. Moulton, who has a unique ability to make cooking watchable, understandable and easy, currently hasn't a show in production. Her two cookbooks, plus a third that will be published in April, are the current ways to connect with this extraordinary teacher.


It wasn't Moulton's idea to end Cooking Live, she said in a recent interview. Innovation lost its cachet at the Food Network years ago. The network that once hosted noted contemporary chefs sharing their expertise has moved far from that Julia Child end of the spectrum to shows that feature home cooks, nearly ubiquitous competition programs and, as Moulton pointed out, an abundance of female cleavage.

"The target audience," she said, "appears to have shifted to 15-to-35-year-old males."

As the focus changed, chefs such as Mario Batali, Ming Tsai, Emeril Lagasse and Gale Gand disappeared from the network. Moulton didn't leave immediately. She moved to a half-hour taped program, Sara's Secrets. The series was in production for about three years and Food Network used reruns for another two years.

After leaving the network in 2005, she hosted Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television. Though production ended on that series, she hopes it may restart as the economy improves and underwriters for public-TV shows reappear. That same weak economy contributed to the folding of Gourmet magazine last year. Moulton was executive chef of the publication, and as it sunk it also pulled under a pending syndicated series, Ask Gourmet with Sara Moulton.

Even though it was a lot of hard work, Cooking Live remains a personal favorite with Moulton:

"It was the perfect show. I would love to do it again."

There's a small chance the company that owns the Food Network might make that happen. Scripps Networks plans to launch the Cooking Channel later this year. When asked if a live cooking show might make the new network's schedule, a Scripps representative said, "That's certainly something that's in the (potential) mix."


Abram is hoping for The New Yankee Workshop to return to the air in a different way. When he and producer Russell Morash began the series in 1988, they guessed there were enough woodworking projects to take it "through four years, and that would pretty much do it," Abram said. Instead, it stayed on the PBS schedule for 21 years, with the last two seasons highlighting repackaged early episodes.

"We pretty much accomplished what we set out to do. And I wanted some more free time," he explained.

Abram and Morash believe the early episodes are just as good as when they were new, but the financial support for the repackaged shows evaporated, and this is the first year in 22 that hasn't seen a new Yankee season. For now, an early episode is posted each week on the show's Web site, which you can find HERE. And if the Web traffic is strong enough, underwriting may reappear for the series, he said.

Abram's work, like Moulton's, focuses on high quality and accessibility versus flash and the half-hour fix. It's one type of programming that makes TV worth watching. A better economy may keep that standard from being forgotten.



TV Worth Watching contributor Tom Brinkmoeller, who is neither a chef nor a carpenter, tries to improve his meager skills by watching real artists at work.



Neil said:

You wrote, and I quote: "[Bianculli here: Contributing writer Tom Brinkmoeller follows a lot of pubic TV and informational cable TV shows..."

Really??? (Does he also listen to pubic radio?)

Comment posted on March 17, 2010 2:33 PM

Greg Kibitz said:

Sorry Tom, but as an avid watcher, past and present, of both these how-to "innovators" and as an avid home chef/gourmet/gourmand and do-it-yourselfer tool man, I think you need to do a bit more homework.

As to The This Old House crowd I do think you are right that they were the ones, much as the Victory Garden launched the Home and Garden Genre.

Sara Moulton, as great as she is, was hardly an innovator in a genre that goes back far further to when she was still in diapers (or at least elementary school if she is ~45 like myself). 30 years before there even was a Food Network, we already had the likes of Julia Child and Graham Kerr filling the PBS and Network airwaves with what, as a youth in the 70's, was very much must-see-TV and TVWW. (My mother was one of those Mom's in the 70 who cooked her way though Julia's French cookbooks so we had food in the blood). Now, I'm not sure how "live" Julia was, but I know for a fact that Kerr on his very classic mid-70's show, The Galloping Gourmet, cooked live for an in studio audience and that he even picked someone at the end to dine with him (not unlike Emeril Live). Of course, it was still live on-tape so there was no live call-in but IMO, that is a bit of a gimmick anyway.

Comment posted on March 17, 2010 6:23 PM

Greg Kibitz said:

I should add that when the Food Network was new and all the shows were real experienced chefs with sucessful well-known restaurants and cookbooks and they really taught good food, I was a Food Network addict and expanded my "chops" quite a lot. I watched hours and hours a day and copied literally 100's, if not 1000's of receipes off their site to my home PC. But as the good talent left and all the shows became less a about Haute Cuisine, Technique and/or Globally Authentic Cusine and more about glitz and competition and road trips to candy stores and diners, I jumped ship too and never returned. These days, other than Top Chef on Bravo and Hells' Kitchen on FOX, I now exclusively watch all my TV cooking shows on the PBS Create channel where the likes of Julia Child, Jaques Pepin, Hubert Keller, Ming Tsai, Mario Batalli, Daisy Martinez, Joanne Weir, Martin Yan, Jose Andres', Maria Bastianche, Rick Bayless and many, many others can still be found. But You knew that already because that is where you now have to go to also find the New Yankee Workshop these days as well.

Comment posted on March 17, 2010 6:36 PM

Rich said:

Relax Tom, it's just moved to the Internet. I just watched some "How to speak Japanese 101" videos on YouTube.com

Comment posted on March 17, 2010 6:53 PM

Curtis said:

I've been cooking professionally for decades (and don't consider myself a chef - just a good cook) and I credit Graham Kerr as one of the reasons for that. The other was that my mom wasn't much of a cook and when I discovered garlic I moved out.

It was the late sixties that I used to watch Kerr's Galloping Gourmet shows on local commercial tv in the afternoons after Dark Shadows and before Mike Douglas. This was way before I knew there was a public tv channel. He just made it look like so much fun. And, of course, he had a little wine, too.

When I finally landed in a place that had cable in the '70s I was happy to discover Julia Child on PBS (and Justin Wilson - the Cajun Cook, and Jeff Smith - the Frugal Gourmet, too). I watch Sarah Moulton on Create and she doesn't do it for me. There's nothing interesting about her. If her "live" shows ever show up there I'm all over it. That might be fun.

Create TV is definitely one of our nightly go-to channels.

Comment posted on March 18, 2010 11:56 AM
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