The Food Network crowned its next Star on Sunday night, and as predicted, 27-year-old Brooklyn chef Justin Warner was named the winner of Season 8 of The Next Food Network Star. Of all of the past Food Network Star winners, Warner was the first chosen entirely by an online audience vote.
While Season 8's voting system resulted in the right winner, the system itself needs to be axed entirely.
The Power of Selection
There have now been eight complete seasons of The Next Food Network Star, and eight winners. Of those winners, including Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, Guy Fieri, Amy Finley, Aaron McCargo, Jr., Melissa d'Arabian, Aarti Sequeira, Jeff Mauro and Justin Warner, only one of those stars is a true Food Network Star. That would be Fieri, the host of many shows on the network, including the network's most popular show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which is shown up to eight times in a single day on the channel.
The network's other stars have done little after having won The Next Food Network Star. Smith and McDonagh's show Party Line was cancelled in 2006. Amy Finley left the U.S. after filming six episodes of her show, The Gourmet Next Door, to relocate to France for family reasons. McCargo, Jr., and his season's runner-up, Adam Gertler, have both achieved a modicum of success, but McCargo, Jr.'s show hasn't run since 2009. D'Arabian finally has her show Ten Dollar Dinners going, but it's nowhere near as successful as similar shows like Rachael Ray's 30 Minute Meals, and Sequeira and Mauro have only both begun their own Food Network legends, respectively.
Justin Warner will now join these past winners and attempt to do what Guy Fieri has done: Actually become a Food Network star.
One may believe Warner has the best chance to succeed on Food Network because he was the first winner picked by the fans. However, that would be a false assumption.
Why The Voting Process Failed
For Season 8 of The Next Food Network Star, the network offered very simple instructions: Watch the season, follow your favorite stars, and at the end of the season, you will be able to vote online for who you think deserves to be the Next Food Network Star. Sounds simple, right?
Unfortunately, nothing was so simple for the Food Network.
First of all, voting required users to link up their Facebook accounts, and allowed no other way to register. This was a huge turnoff for viewers, and not just the voters that HAVE Facebook accounts. The main issue here is that the Food Network's demographic skews older, yet it is this same demographic that trusts and uses technology the last.
Alice McClendon, a 64-year-old Food Network fan, wrote into me with her complaints:
I feel changing [the] format was terrible, McClendon said. This was just not a good season. I hope next season, if there is a Season 9, will go back to the old [form] and be fair. Remember, everyone is not computer savvy. I'm 64 and just beginning to use my computer to my advantage.
The Food Network also let voters vote up to 10 times a day, which not only dilutes the importance of each vote, but is utterly ridiculous in the first place. I can understand one vote or one vote per day, but 10 votes in a single day? How about for this November's presidential election, we let people vote over the course of a week, or several times each day? The Food Network already planned to tally the votes digitally, so why did the Food Network need time to prepare? To produce their final, crappy episode filled with rehashes of every past episode? It wasn't worth it.
Restricting the vote to Facebook users and letting users vote 10 times a day wasn't even the worst thing the Food Network did. The very worst thing was that after a season-long struggle to eliminate passionate contestants, audiences were only given TWO DAYS to watch the finalists' pilots and vote.
This means at best, a single voter could have voted 30 total times over the course of the voting period. Voting opened last Sunday and closed last Tuesday at 5 p.m. Viewers who missed the episode could have voted once or ten times (again, that is ridiculous).
The Food Network doesn't make mistakes often -- except for some of the past Food Network Stars (in my opinion) -- but this is the worst thing the network could have possibly done in trying to find its next television star. This was an important decision: Essentially, the Food Network hands over a multi-million dollar contract and the keys to the Food Network kitchens with a single audience vote. But it wasn't done the right way. Not at all.
Season 8 of The Next Food Network Star was supposed to embrace the Internet, but Food Network viewers and fans had absolutely no time to spread this news around. If people wanted to tell their friends, or if they actually wanted to have a real campaign online to vote for each of these food network stars it would've been impossible. The Food Network's thinking about this was extremely shortsighted.
The Food Network wasn't helping itself during this three-day span, either. There were very few commercials, teasers, or extra commercials just to remind viewers to vote. Furthermore, the Food Network erected so many obstacles and hurdles in order for fans to actually vote. If you were lucky enough to watch the penultimate episode on Sunday night, or you are a total Food Network fanatic, then you would've known to vote. Otherwise, the network gave no opportunity for its own news to spread before the voting closed.
The Food Network fell short on so many levels in Season 8, and since older viewers were alienated by the system, it essentially came down to a popularity contest. For any viewer that had watched the whole season, of course Justin Warner would win in this scenario. He was the food rebel with a cause and he showed off a sense of humor that was instantly liked by Alton Brown, who is pretty likeable in his own right. After a certain point in the season, Brown was actively cheering on Warner, even though he would also have to produce Martie Duncan's show if she did win (spoiler alert: she didn't). Make no mistake about it: Warner and Brown are soulmates, and audiences were hooked by this relationship. And guess what, Justin Warner now has a spot on the Food Network roster. And he's only been cooking in Brooklyn for a year.
It's really a shame it had to happen this way, especially since Season 8 of The Next Food Network Star had so many finalists that truly deserved their own shows. They all had unique perspectives: Justin Warner was the rebel/mad scientist, Martie Duncan knew how to throw parties, Michele Ragussis wanted to be the first host to represent New England cuisine, and Yvan Lemoine had one of the saddest, most incredible backgrounds one has ever heard. He was homeless for a short time in his life, and he and his families used to go dumpster diving for food. In Season 8, he wanted to show viewers how to make family-style meals on a budget. Could you think of four vastly different perspectives you'd want to see more?
Any of these four contestants could have won the whole shebang, assuming they were evenly matched. But they weren't evenly matched.
Producers aside, the Food Network Star finalists themselves had no chance against Justin Warner in an online environment. On Twitter alone, Martie Duncan has a little more than 2,000 followers, Yvan Lemoine has about 1,300 followers, and Michele Ragussis has almost 1,200 followers. Justin Warner, on the other hand, has nearly 8,000 followers on Twitter, and he's much younger than his fellow finalists.
Although it wasn't their intention, the Food Network set up an unfair fight in Season 8. Justin Warner may have won regardless of the voting structure, but we may never know since none of the other contestants had a real shot to sell themselves to an online audience, which is what the Food Network promised would make this a different season.
The Food Network failed itself, its viewers, and most of all, the other Season 8 finalists of The Next Food Network Star. The voting system really should go, since the Food Network really ought to leave these major decisions in-house and leave it a mystery to the fans. If the network wants fans involved, it could leave half of the decision to a fan vote, or a third of the decision. But an intense competition should never be boiled down to a single popularity contest. This is a life-changing event for all of these contestants, and the way in which the winner is chosen deserves more attention.