We’ve long held that celebrity chef-led prime time TV cooking shows stir up so much interest in food and dining that they ultimately work to the benefit of all full-service restaurant owners, not just a particular show’s participants. Could Gordon Ramsay’s new Cookalong Live! on Fox may prove to be the exception to the rule?
The first installment of Cookalong Live! was billed as a one-hour special, but broadcast industry rumormongers say the Fox network hopes to make it into a regular series at some point. A similar version of this show had a good run on British TV, although its format featured bare-bones production values: one person cooking by himself in a studio in front of a couple of cameras.
The setup for last December's U.S. version on Fox was more elaborate. Present on the set were Ramsay, attired in a flannel shirt instead of chef’s whites; a studio audience seated directly behind him; and three medium-wattage celebrities: country singer LeAnn Rimes, actress Alyson Hannigan (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, How I Met Your Mother), and Cedric the Entertainer. Checking in via satellite were a few military wives whose husbands were serving in Afghanistan, plus Whoopie Goldberg and her daughter.
The show’s premise was that the in-studio celebrities, the live-via-satellite guests and all the folks at home would cook right along with Ramsay as he prepared a three-course meal. The dishes on the menu were angel hair pasta with shrimp; steak Diane; and tiramisu. The timetable called for them to be done before the end of the show. None of these three items have a particularly high degree of difficulty, so it should have been possible for the average Jane or Joe to complete all three within the allotted hour.
However, at-home participants had to do some serious shopping beforehand if they really wanted to cook along with chef Ramsay. His menu required 31 different ingredients and the equipment list ran to 27 items. Who knows how many viewers even owned the six different cooking pans—plus a kettle for boiling the pasta—that were required? Even if they did, post-event chat room conversations brought up the notion that many participants wished they had been prompted to get the pasta water boiling before the show began.
Even so, the show’s concept was strong. Who wouldn’t want to prepare dinner in their own kitchen while a multi-Michelin-starred chef talks them through the necessary steps?
There’s no way of knowing how many people participated in the at-home cooking aspect of the show. For one thing, it began at 9 p.m. EST on a weekday, meaning that few in the national viewing audience would complete their meal at a time when they would usually eat. For another, it appeared to our view that if a person were to fall behind, getting back in sync with the show would be problematic.
On the plus side, Ramsay was on his best behavior—no temper tantrums, no F-bombs—and he’s a skillful instructor. It’s a good thing he is, because his company now owns Britain’s largest cooking school, Tante Marie School of Cookery.
But no matter how many people did or didn’t cook along, a lot of them watched. The show’s ratings and economics were solid. In its time slot, Cookalong Live! trailed CBS’s NCIS: Los Angeles (17.4 million viewers), NBC’s The Sing-off (4.4 million viewers) and, during the first half-hour of its time slot, ABC’s Scrubs (4.3 million viewers). The second half-hour of that time slot saw Cookalong Live! finish ahead of ABC’s Better Off Ted (3.2 million). We can guarantee that Cookalong Live! cost significantly less to produce than NCIS: Los Angeles, Scrubs and Better Off Ted, and about the same as The Sing-off. On that basis alone, it may be brought back as a series. The return on investment in prime time viewership numbers almost compels it. A similar ROI is a big reason Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen reality cooking competition show has been renewed for two more seasons, its seventh and eighth.
Will all this exposure for Ramsay ever translate into more business for everyone else? We would argue that while his show is supposed to demystify the cooking process, it actually demonstrated how much work is involved. Home cooks don’t have the luxury of giving their ingredient list to a distributor rep and having their groceries dropped off at their back door. We’re guessing few viewer participants wanted to clean the multiple pots and pans they had used after the cooking was done.
In the end, we think Cookalong Live! nets out this way: The industry winds up with more people interested in restaurant-caliber food, but few of them will be eager to tackle the job themselves. They’ll still be willing to outsource meal preparation to you.