Chow Time

What does a pissant television market such as, for instance, Midland, offer its viewers that Houston, fourth largest city in the United States, second largest port and 11th largest media market, does not? Let's try some thing simple, something that speakers of Farsi and Fulani have in common, something that a Serb can share with a Croat, something that an Israeli government hit man can contemplate with the same expectant tenderness as a Hamas bomb maker.

Apart from a mother's love, how about that something being a well-cooked meal? Cooking and its attendant activity, eating, enjoy more popularity more times a day than NASCAR racing, looking for poisonous toads in an Australian cane field or Houston City Council meetings. Yet, while you can watch all three of those activities till your eyes cross with nothing but a basic cable hookup, getting some tips on how to butter your buns properly is not available to Houston cable subscribers. Not only does this put Houston further out of the food loop than Midland; it puts it behind countries such as Korea and the Philippines.

Houstonians have been out of luck if they wanted to connect via their television sets to the plethora of cooking shows which are currently served up by a cable channel entirely devoted to cooking shows. Where 30-odd years ago, Julia Child's flutey trill was a single voice in the vast wasteland of broadcast television, appearing once a week on PBS affiliates, today Americans can digest a 24-hour-a-day stream of cooking-related programming courtesy of the E.W. Scripps Company's Food Network channel.

There's The Iron Chef and The Naked Chef; there's Follow That Beer and Food Fantasy; and there's always, always, every few hours, yet another airing of the incomprehensibly successful Emeril Live. Sadly, one of Britain's Two Fat Ladies has passed on to that great butler's pantry in the sky without having had the chance to be appreciated by Houstonians, and their show is no longer being aired.

Kimberly Maki, Vice President for Public Affairs at the Time-Warner Communications cable television facility in Houston, explains, "As far as analog, there are fewer channels available, 78 channels, and in the Houston market we have 16 'must carry' channels, plus four access channels, and those have been by contract for many, many years. So, we have not had space for the Food Network."

The E.W. Scripps Company also owns and operates the Home & Garden Television Network (HGTV), Do It Yourself (DIY) and the Fine Living channels. Only HGTV is currently part of the Time-Warner analog lineup.

Maki does observe that, "The Food Network is available already in Houston to subscribers of the Time-Warner digital service, which carries some 200 channels. It's channel 333." Maki went on to explain that the digital service was only "about five dollars" per month more than the analog service, with the basic monthly rate being "$39.95 per month." Maki additionally states that the basic cable varies somewhat in the Houston market. (This is due in part to such costs as municipal "access fees" and "franchise fees.") In West University Place, for instance, more-or-less basic cable service, styled "Economy Pak," is currently $34.95 per month.

"Someday," Maki adds, "everything will be digital."

At the Food Network West Coast branch office in Beverly Hills, executive Lillian Martin was asked if there are any other markets the size of Houston that do not have the Food Network as part of basic cable service? Martin replied succinctly, "No. You're probably one of the last left standing."

The great good news for Houston's beleaguered foodies is that the Food Network is coming to this market and will be available over the Time-Warner cable system as part of the analog service "Economy Pak" soon. Perhaps, very soon.

As this issue of the Houston Press goes to bed, a clutch of gimlet-eyed negotiators representing the Food Network and Time-Warner are in a room somewhere, perhaps New York City, perhaps Houston, perhaps even Knoxville, Tennessee (where E.W. Scripps has its headquarters). They are knocking out the final language of an agreement that will bring us this long-denied link to the Greater World of Foodies, Fatties, and Chefs both Iron and Naked.

The negotiations, according to spokespeople for the parties involved, were to be completed on Friday, August 10, or perhaps Monday, August 13. No doubt there are fine points to be worked out. Perhaps, as happened during the negotiations to end the Vietnam War, there is concern over the shape of the table to be used for the signing ceremony. Maybe they have taken up a point we would like to see inserted in the contract: That particular codicil would have Time-Warner pay the E.W. Scripps Company $100 less of a usage fee for this market every time that Emeril Legasse utters the expletive "Bam!"

A spokesperson for the Food Network, playing it very close to the vest, or perhaps apron, would only say that it "has no comment at this time." Over at Time-Warner's offices in Houston, a spokesperson explained that our market "will have the Food Network over the analog service before the end of the year."

We're guessing it will be even sooner than that. Stay tuned.


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