Food Network doesn't disclose a fundamental fact, gets accused of rigging the show, bloats ratings, and inspires viewer ire...
The special White House episode of Iron Chef America was meant to bring First Lady Michelle Obama's message about healthier eating and the benefits of local and sustainable food sourcing to a wide, prime time TV audience. The First Lady made a cameo appearance on the show, as she welcomed chefs Matio Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, and host Alton Brown to the White House, where they were filmed harvesting vegetables in her Kitchen Garden, joined by Executive Chef Cris Comerford. These were the "secret ingredients" the chefs would use when they did battle for the culinary crown in the Kitchen Stadium. (Above: The First Lady, the chefs, and Brown at the White House)
But instead, stand-in "stunt" vegetables were used when the competition portion of Iron Chef America was filmed in the show's New York studio a week after the harvest, rather than the actual produce the chefs plucked from Mrs. Obama's garden. The swap was not mentioned onscreen, and viewers watching the show were led to believe that the vegetables the chefs were cooking with came directly from the White House. The issue is now making national headlines.
During the episode, everyone on the show, including the chefs, all three judges, Brown, and the two "floor commentators" mentioned "White House Kitchen Garden vegetables" at some point--and the chefs were even going so far as to make distinctions between Kitchen Garden vegetables they had used in their dishes, and those they had chosen from the show's onstage pantry.
Reporters did not see the final, edited version of the show until it premiered on air on Jan. 3, when the rest of the world saw it. Before the airing, journalists did not know there would be no mention of the use of stand in vegetables. There was also no disclaimer about the use of stunt vegetables posted with the credits at the end of the show.
Still, the news about stunt vegetables is not new information: New York Times reporter Marian Burros noted the use of alternate vegetables in a story about the show in November, as did Obama Foodorama, in this post, when first writing up Mrs. Obama's history-making appearance: "Stand-in organic veggies were used for the actual filming, with White House vegetables being donated to a food bank, due to the time-gap between filming and the White House visit."
But the unmentioned "swap" is now getting big attention in the media. Lynn Sweet, of Daily Flotus at AOL, has just posted a column on the topic of stunt vegetables. Other observers have picked it up: Here's a clip from Fox News, and Stephen Colbert does a send up here. Robin Shreeves, of Mother Nature Network, posted a piece on Jan. 5 about her disappointment in the use of stunt vegetables, which was re-posted on numerous internet outlets. Someone posted a 3-minute video about stunt vegetables on YouTube, which contained potentially volatile images, such as Mrs. Obama gardening with beret-wearing "socialist" children. (Above: A screengrab from the video)
Bloated viewer numbers, and a question about non-local foods
Not disclosing the stunt vegetables was just one of Food Network's problems with "reality." As first reported here at Obama Foodorama, thanks to the combination of Mrs. Obama and the White House, the show had record breaking viewer numbers, according to Nielsen ratings.
But Food Network sent out its own self congratulatory PR piece about the viewer numbers, in which they announced the combined viewership for Iron Chef America and a new show that premiered after it, Worst Cooks in America--but made it sound like this viewership was only for Iron Chef America. Iron Chef America got about 4.6 million viewers, not the 7 million-plus that Food Network is claiming.
There is also some question about whether or not the rest of the food products used on the show were actually locally sourced, as Food Network claims, and which was also a much repeated phrase on air. Obama Foodorama has now asked publicists from the show for a list of local providers and farmers--three times--and so far, they have not been able to provide this.
Viewers--and the New York Times--believed the show had a pre-determined outcome
After Iron Chef America aired, there were many, many suggestions that the show was rigged, "fixed" in favor of Team White House. Following the East coast airing, Twitter was immediately loaded with suggestions that the show was skewed in favor of the home players, and after the show aired on the West coast, there was more of the same. (Photo: Chefs Comerford and Flay in the Kitchen Stadium)
The New York Times went at the idea of a thrown Iron Chef America in a big way, on the paper's Diner's Journal blog. Restaurant critic Sam Sifton and food writer Kim Severson both weighed in.
In his first blog post about the show, Sifton assumed the fix, and was fairly sanguine about it. He wrote:
Obviously Ms. Comerford and Mr. Flay won in the end. (It is hardly cynical to observe that there is a protocol at work here, nor to suggest that “Iron Chef” is as rigged as a Cirque du Soleil performance.)
In a second blog post, Sifton is joined by Severson, and they debate the winning dishes, as well as the sweat-level of the competing chefs, and the show's focus on sweet potatoes. Then, the conversation turns to rigging again:
Kim Severson: Here’s the bigger question: Was the fix in? I mean, I know reality TV isn’t exactly real, but this felt like a set up of the highest order. How are you going to get your Food Network show invited to the most powerful house in the world and not give the gold to the host team?
Sam Sifton: ...I think it would have been hard...to deny Ms. Comerford and her employer’s vegetables the win...my feeling is he [Flay/Team White House] would have won with a pile of blue-corn tortillas, some honey mustard and a heap of steamed kale.
On the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog, writer Dawn Fallik didn't think the idea of the show being "fixed" even warranted a question to readers. She just assumed it was:
The winner is Flay and Comerford by five points. Which is no shock whatsoever because no one is going to diss Michelle Obama and her spinach Popeye arms.
Ms. Falik's commenters agreed the show was rigged.
Over at Serious Eats, on a discussion board about Iron Chef America, a high number of the readers who weighed in post-show were convinced "the fix was in" for Team White House.
At Entertainment Weekly, on the PopWatch blog, writer Annie Barrett's biggest complaint about the show was the low amount of screen time from Mrs. Obama. She asked her readers if they were disappointed about that, too. She didn't ask any question about the show being rigged, but many of the commenters who weighed in all said they thought the show was fixed. Food network had led viewers to believe--with a months-long, multi-million dollar ad campaign that included TV spots, front page ads in New York Times, bus posters--that there would be far, far more of Mrs. Obama onscreen. But as Obama Foodorama noted following the show's airing, if you'd seen the ad campaign--you'd already seen all there was to see of Mrs. Obama.
On White House Food TV...
These are just a few examples of the rigging discussion on the Internet. But both rigging and informing viewers of the truth speak to the problem of the White House marrying itself to television, something it has been happy to do.
For the holidays alone, Mrs. Obama and/or President Obama were on four different TV specials, including Oprah, a HGTV show about holidays in the White House, a Gloria Estefan special, a music program. No one used stunt vegetables on those shows, however, and the margin of error was perhaps lower than for a show that the White House knew was going to have a gap between harvesting of vegetables and shooting the competition. Sweet makes the stunt vegetable issue sound like it was entirely the fault of Food Network, but the White House was well aware of the show's shooting schedule.
UPDATE Jan. 15: The Youtube video about stunt vegetables on Iron Chef America has now been removed from the site. The photo above is a screen shot from the missing video.
Here's Sweet's full column from Daily Flotus, reprinted for archival purposes:
Iron Chef Special Used Ringers, Not Veggies From The White House Garden
The produce used on the Food Network's Jan. 3 Iron Chef of America two-hour special White House show was billed as being from the White House garden. But the show did not disclose that "stunt double vegetables" were used and not produce from the First Family's garden.
The much ballyhooed show featured a cameo by First Lady Michelle Obama who invited the chefs to pick what they needed from the White House garden in the opening scenes. Mrs. Obama agreed to appear --and give the show access to the garden -- because the episode promoted her healthy eating themes and the garden, her signature first-year project. Iron Chef also reaches an audience that would be interested in Mrs. Obama's local food, anti-obesity and exercise agenda.
The cook-off featured White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford and star chefs Bobby Flay, Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse. At the top of the show the chefs were greeted by Mrs. Obama who invites them to harvest what they needed from the White House garden in order to complete their challenge of preparing five "ultimate American" dishes using fresh and local ingredients. Comerford, teamed with Flay won the competition. Click play below to watch a segment from the start of the show (Michelle Obama's entrance at 1:30).
Comerford wrote about the experience over at the whitehouse.gov blog.
"Because this competition was about fresh fruits and vegetables, but also about the American experience, Chef Flay and I decided to cook to our strengths and to our heritages. To highlight the diversity of culinary traditions and flavors that define our country, Chef Flay cooked with his southwestern flair, I brought in recipes from my native Philippines, and we blended it all with unique takes on classic American recipes."
The White House segment was taped in late October. The cook-off actually took place the following week, in what Iron Chef calls its "Kitchen Stadium" in New York City.
So clearly the stuff that was picked that October day at the White House never had a chance of making it on the show because the produce would not be fresh. The use of the "stunt vegetables" was revealed in a November New York Times Marian Burros article and in Obamafoodorama.com, Eddie Gehman Kohan's web site-of-record on anything having to do with food and food policy coming out of the Obama White House. But no one knew until the show if the "stunt double" vegetables would be disclosed.
Viewers were not explicitly told that the vegetables in "Kitchen Stadium" were not the ones they had seen the chefs harvest. Various participants in the show misled viewers with references to "using radishes from the White House garden" and other similar mentions. Except for the honey, no food on the show came from the White House.
Mrs. Obama's East Wing told me the vegetables picked at the White House garden that day in October were donated to a local food kitchen, so nothing went to waste. The week between the harvest the cook-off was due to "scheduling/technical" reasons.
Lisa Krueger, the public relations director for the Food Network, sent an e-mail to me after I raised questions about why viewers were misled.
"As we have told reporters who have covered this story from the beginning, due to the production delay between the shoot at the White House and the shoot at Food Network, the produce used in Kitchen Stadium during the "Super Chef Battle" was not actually from the White House garden." The actual vegetables used, Krueger said, were "locally sourced, and the chefs were only allowed to use the types of produce that they had harvested from the garden themselves."
Obama Foodorama reported that the ratings for the White House Iron Chef America special "set new viewer records for Food Network. ....With about 4.6 million viewers, it was the highest rated and most-watched show in Food Network's history."
*Photos from Food Network