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GUEST BLOG #12: Tom Brinkmoeller Loves Public TV's No-EVOO Diet
April 29, 2009  | By Tom Brinkmoeller  | 1 comment
[Bianculli here: Tom Brinkmoeller, for his latest column, reverted to his old print reporter instincts, and conducted interviews as well as delivered his own opinion. The topic: TV's food shows. And while I'll agree to disagree with him about Gordon Ramsay, whose shows I find immensely entertaining, he's really onto something about the respective informative values of certain shows.

Here's Tom's full report...]

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Without Public Television, We All Would Be Drowning in EVOO

If you understand the difference between a really good museum and a circus, you no doubt can see the huge differences between the prototype cooking, how-to and travel series on public television and the badly executed rip-offs that populate cable's Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel and their lesser sycophant cable brethren.

One is art. The other is clowns and animals.

Some comparisons: Watch any Julia Child or Jacques Pepin series, or America's Test Kitchen, or Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie, or almost any other public broadcasting cooking show (the wonderful reality is there are so many), and you actually learn how to cook. You're entertained, but it's secondary to making the half-hour a worthwhile investment. It's intelligent, clearly presented and non-gimmicky. There's an art involved, and you get to watch.

Then watch any Food Network show hosted by Rachael Ray, Paula Deen, Sandra Lee or even Ina Garten or Giada De Laurentiis and if you're interested in learning to cook, you have to question your investment. Learning too often gets put far behind meaningless story lines, empty glitz, cross-promotion and product placement.

Could it be that these shows get sprayed with PAM before airing, so nothing too important sticks to them? At least they are better than the truly awful food-competition shows, which would seem to attract people who like to watch crying contestants get voted off the set and those viewers who will sit through a thoroughly boring hour to see if a cake falls over or apart before it's judged.

A few more comparisons -- in case you're not yet convinced -- before a little analysis. Compare public TV's Rick Steves, Globe Trekker or Rudy Maxa shows with those hosted by:

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-- Samantha Brown (a decent travel journalist trapped inside a network that appears to have minimal ethics when it comes to a business buying its way onto the show).

-- Anthony Bourdain (perhaps the angriest man on television after Regis Philbin, but decidedly less professional or entertaining).

-- Andrew Zimmern (a man who has gotten himself airtime simply by showing he'll eat any insect or innard -- a quality my wife's childhood dog had, but it didn't win him a series).

Finally, see if you can discover the quality thread of This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop in commercial knockoffs Carter Can or Design on a Dime. Are the production standards similar in The Victory Garden and Desperate Landscapes?

Of course, there is no comparison. PBS invented and has perfected TV Worth Watching in these categories. Over the years, cable has largely acted as an anti-alchemist, repeatedly turning gold into lead. Most unjust is that these high-quality originals have to work like crazy for underwriting. Meanwhile, the propensity to do anything to attract higher advertising rates helps the commercial bandits pay bills and makes people like EVOO peddler Rachael Ray wealthy. (The words "extra virgin olive oil" may be too hard for her to say.)

How does this sit with the inventors of these genres? Russell Morash produced every Julia Child series from her television start in the early '60s, and invented This Old House, Ask This Old House, The New Yankee Workshop and The Victory Garden. He cut back his busy schedule in 2004, handing over control of all but The New Yankee Workshop. Separation hasn't lessened his interest, though. Standards for shows that have taken his concepts commercial, he says, have dropped "beyond zero."

On his PBS shows, hosts also have been collaborators, shaping the programming and raising quality levels. Morash says Norm Abram and French Chef Julia Child have shared the quality of thoroughly knowing the subject before the shooting starts -- a quality not deemed necessaryhosts are chosen for looks and how they willnorm abram new yankee.jpg on the commercial networks. Too often, Morash says, appeal to a demographic target, and program concepts are born in marketers' minds.

"Julia did not have all the chromium, but she could cook the hell out of a show," he says. "She had another disarming characteristic. She was very smart, well-schooled. She knew what she was talking about, and she kept that up her entire life.

"Norm is the same way. He reads about and understands the entire technique before he does something he's never done before."

These qualities don't show themselves on the copies of the originals. Be it a how-to fix program that skips over the details of a project to fit it into a half-hour package or a cooking show that's more drama than substance, a program is built to fit a concept.

Morash says he recently watched an episode of Hell's Kitchen in which star Gordon Ramsay's main purpose seemed to be "to insult and abuse these youngsters." Morash's wife, Marian, watched with him. She was the cooking expert on The Victory Garden and also worked for many years in the kitchen of an East Coast five-star seafood restaurant. More than their astonishment at the chef's theatrical demeanor ("beyond abusive"), they couldn't believe Ramsay would charge the contestants with creating a signature dish in 45 minutes. Morash's wife pointed out that many truly talented chefs consider it an achievement if they can create a true "signature dish" over a 45-year career.

The commercial networks' appetite for the wrapping paper over the content is nothing new. Morash accompanied Ms. Child many years ago to a cooking appearance on Good Morning America. Seventy-seven seconds into the segment, a network executive in the control room turned to Morash and said, "This is really boring!"

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Though they've seen their masterpieces counterfeited into the equivalent of velvet paintings for sale on a roadside lot, the good guys haven't given up on their dream of producing TV Worth Watching. Laurie Donnelly has been working in public television for 34 years and, as the WGBH executive producer of lifestyle programming, oversees the programs Morash created, as well as Simply Ming and Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie. She says these types of programs will continue to thrive as long they're "presented in a way that's not intimidating and not condescending" by "experts who have a passion for what they do."

Finding underwriters, she says, "is always a challenge." But experience has shown her that there's always "the right fit" for programming that makes high quality and accessibility the most important ingredients.

Just imagine how far television would sink without those kinds of principles.



Tom writes: For a number of years, Tom Brinkmoeller was paid to watch and write about television. That seemingly ideal situation can't match his current one -- watching only what he enjoys, not being held hostage by a paycheck, and not having to steer a TV story through editors who think watching television impairs the brain as well as social status.



shauna said:

I completely agree with you (except for Top Chef which I think is entertaining and amazing). I grew up on Victory Garden and am a Landscape Architect now. I loved all the cooking shows and still watch Globe Trekker or Rick Steves whenever I can find them. PBS is just incomparable.

Comment posted on April 29, 2009 9:32 AM

CAthy said:

Very insightful article. And I'll go one further. I can remember watching The French chef as a kid and thinking this is really boring. I probably would've enjoyed Rachel Ray back then. However, it wasn't long before I put away "childish things", and now I long for Julia Child.

Comment posted on April 29, 2009 10:03 AM

John said:

I agree with everything except your verdict on Anthony Bourdain.

But my biggest complaint about many of the home repair and makeover shows is how much time they waste (even the 30-minute programs) recapping after every commercial break.

Comment posted on April 29, 2009 1:17 PM

Gregory Kibitz said:

Same as it ever was. It's the old difference between for profit and non- or not-for-profit. As will all things, for-profit more often than not ultimately creates crap due to the fact that sales and marketing and profits rarely correspond with quality, content or social relevance/benefit. You see it in the entertainment industry, the movie industry, the health care industry, the finance industry, the insurance industry, the retail industry and right there on TV too (except somehow premium TV, that actaully does charge us directly, seems to get it exactly right).

Sadly, most Americans are cradle to grave slaves to Madison Avenue brainwashing and the belief that somehow profits and capitalism create the greatest of all things when so much evidence is clearly to the contray. As such I will stick with my PBS (for cooking shows, documantaries and investigative reporting), Public Radio (for my Radio) and try my best to buy products from the companies that really do put quality and social conscience first (instead of just putting out icipid ads that say that they do when all evidence is to the contray). And it it were not for my DVR and the ability to skip all commercials, I would be giving up networks entirely.

This reminds me of how the US autombile companies have been telling us (as an excuse for their failures) that they only made the cars that American's clearly wanted to buy. Of course, they fail to mention the true powewr of marketing and advertising. That all data shows that American's tend to buy what Madison Avenue tells them they should have and must need and that is really the car companies telling us what to buy, not us telling them what we really want (if left to figure it out all for ourselves based on real facts, figures and intelligent analysis). For me that is a not-too-compact hatchback that hauls like a truck but handles like a real car and gets great gas milage too, which is like 75% of all cars in Europe and the American companies barely offer any and Ford even recently cancelled their last one, the Focus ZX3. And if you go to a one of the foreign makers, they all have excellent option in this class (but they are much more expensive).

Comment posted on April 29, 2009 3:41 PM

Gregory Kibitz said:

I do have a bone to pick with This Old House. They don't do enough budget jobs. Even when they did the shotgun in New Orleans it was still done all very upscale, the kind of renovations that only the ruichest among us can even do. It would be nice to see some small old homes faithfully restored but on a real budget and less of the 21st centruy bells and whistles like $100,000 kitchens and $50,000 home entertainment systems. Sorry but there are those out there taht can barely to afford a hoime in the first place and we just want to see how we can make that meager investment something truly worth real pride.

Comment posted on April 29, 2009 3:46 PM

Elizabeth said:

I completely agree, although I do think Good Eats on the Food Network is informative in the way that PBS shows are informative, even if it is a little gimmicky. If only it didn't have commercials.

Comment posted on April 29, 2009 4:02 PM

Carina said:

I was 100% with you, until you confessed you dislike Anthony Bourdain.

Sorry, while I agree with your premise, I find Bourdain to be not only incredibly entertaining, but literate, witty, and ebullient in his cause of promoting indigenous local/regional cuisines. While I'll never give up my Diary of a Foodie (or even This Old House,) don't ask me to give up Bourdain.

Comment posted on April 29, 2009 4:16 PM

Carina said:

One note, Gordan Ramsey's BBC reality shows (as seen on BBC America) are leaps and bounds better than his Fox shows, including Hell's Kitchen.

Those shows represents some of the worst of reality, while his BBC show focused on genuinely helping failing restaurants and less on gimmicky noises and stupid casting.

Comment posted on April 29, 2009 4:22 PM

greg said:

I was going to mention that Good Eats was great too in another post that never made it to the submit nutton but I got sidetracked. I like Alton Brown and his quirkiness and he entertains and the teaching surely is there as well as great recipes. I do hate some of his preference for exactitude. That is something I also thend to hate about America's Test Kitchen. But I am still am a Christopher Kimbal (et. al.) Fan and if not for low funds, I would have more than 6 years of bound Cook's Illustrated's. But maybe someday I will join the online version and have it all right here instead. And then someday I can decoupage a whole room with their back cover posters of ingredients!

Comment posted on April 29, 2009 4:39 PM

Tom Brinkmoeller said:

As a person who has an unusual amount of time to spend on-line, I can say with a whole lot of certainty that your Web site attracts the most literate and articulate responses to blog posts I have found yet.
Long before I started writing here, shortly after you began this site, I was happily surprised by the quality of the responses you receive to the things you write. So many blogs attract hate and/or anger. People, usually in partial sentences filled with misspelled words and slaughterhouse grammar, hide behind a false name and get away with the type of conduct that even Gordon Ramsay might find offensive.
Not so here. The carefully crafted, well-thought-out responses posted above are typical of what I've read here for more than a year.
Seems solid proof that an endeavor dedicated to highlighting and promoting high quality attracts people of high quality.
Your readers are as much fun to read as you are. Nice party.

Comment posted on April 29, 2009 6:02 PM
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