Digesting The Chew: Democracy & Distinction in Daytime
In April 2011, ABC announced that its veteran soap opera All My Children would be replaced by The Chew, an all-food talk show buoyed by the open banter of a cast of culinary experts. ABC Daytime Group President Brian Frons positioned the show as ABC’s response to audience desire for “different types of programming these days.”
The Chew debuted on September 26th to 2.5 million viewers. The audience share helped ABC to continue as Daytime’s #1 Network, but ratings aggregates like TV by the Numbers were quick to point out that even with premiere week inflation, The Chew finished at an overall lower rating with women 18-49 than All My Children managed a year ago. Apparently, even a premiere episode Dr. Oz cameo was not enough to catalyze increased viewership.
Commercial network daytime television is one of the last arenas to incorporate food-related programming into its regular scheduling. Now that The Chew has arrived, I want to consider briefly how the show brings to light cultural and industrial anxieties about both daytime television and food, and how that translates to uncertainty about the status of the daytime audience.
The Chew invites much discussion that will be left untouched here, including the biting snark and boycott discourse surrounding the launch (e.g., “The Spew,” “Screw the Chew”) and the economics of transferring soap fans to a show about food. I will also bypass the formal conventions of The Chew, mainly because the show’s format is just not that interesting. The Chew is the indoctrination of talk television onto the classic cooking show, imbued with the characteristics of a decade’s worth of lifestyle TV and sealed with something more or less pleasant than an infomercial. The segments are short, the giveaways frequent, and the daytime royalty (Dr. Oz, Whoopi, Joy Behar) are quite literally ready and waiting behind ABC’s promotional door #2.
Media have increasingly taken up food, riding the wave of foodie culture that sociologists Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann argue exists at the borders of democracy and distinction. Johnston and Baumann delineate a contemporary cultural milieu of food that allows for the democratic tendencies of mass production, instant access, and affordability, as well as the more distinct measures of singularity, obscurity, and authenticity. Interestingly, this bears striking resemblance to daytime television. One could argue that daytime TV, like food, carries paradoxical class-laden (and race, age, and gender-laden) associations. These muddy waters between popular-accessible and the privilege of discrimination serve as an excellent (if somewhat amorphous) frame for considering a text like The Chew.
Allowing leniency for first week jitters, The Chew nevertheless seems hyper aware of its indistinct brand and is subsequently shifty-eyed in its attempt to connect with an audience. This is immediately apparent in its dizzying pace. While Michael Symon (Iron Chef) fries pork at the demo stove, Mario Batali runs to the fridge to retrieve ingredients, Carla Hall (Top Chef) ducks under Symon’s arm to help stir, Clinton Kelly (What Not To Wear) chuckles at his own food puns, and Daphne Oz lists the nutritional benefits of kale. This frenetic environment does serve the function of the show’s goal to “every day host a party in our kitchen, the heart of every home!” However, the madness of five overenthusiastic hosts talking at once and clambering at the stove unintentionally speaks volumes about who and what should be prioritized in the construction of The Chew identity and how this should be relayed to anyone tuning in. Should we focus on the healthiness of the kale, the fancy ingredients flavoring the pork, or the intertextuality of Batali sprinting to the fridge?
Dialogue and themed segments further elucidate The Chew’s uncomfortable straddling of the everyday and the elite. The stress on food costs, for example, is a running theme. A segment entitled “Five Minutes, Five Ingredients, $5 per serving,” leads beautifully into the daily news bit, where Kelly casually picks up the New York Times to reference Mark Bittman’s recent article asserting that home-cooked meals are cheaper than fast food. The attempt to get folks to gather round the table for “food, family, and fun,” then, is undermined by food costs that are really quite expensive ($5 per serving?!) and a subtle foodie back-scratching that, thanks to an applauding audience, glosses over the divided response Bittman’s article actually elicited.
Led by the tagline, “Don’t forget, in our kitchen it’s always okay to talk with your mouth full,” the show oozes with populist discourse–football tailgating tips! Cool Ranch Doritos as guilty pleasure! Oz family anecdotes! Running parallel are recipes for “savory” steel cut oats with tofu Canadian bacon and a tour of Batali’s Manhattan-based emporium of fine sausage and cheese.
As Kelly encourages viewers to “cook alongside us” every afternoon, Oz offers stress-busting foods for those in the workforce. And Hall mentions that the expected inflation of peanut butter is going to “affect my bottom line” because her attorney husband loves peanut butter. All of which leaves one wondering who, exactly, The Chew’s audience might be.
Ultimately, implying that The Chew is a litmus test for any future of daytime programming is likely an overstatement. Indeed, the uncertain hegemony of distinction mixed with the ever-presence of the everyday is a tale as old as television and cooked food. However, what The Chew does with some certainty is expose anxieties about a conceivable disconnect between daytime television and its audience, as well as anxiety about how to position food on [daytime network] television for optimum cultural and financial success.