By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Jack Clifford quickly agrees with critics that programming on the Food Network is vastly different today than when he launched it in 1993 to 200,000 households – and not necessarily for the better.
For those who fondly recall the early shows that aired straightforward cooking lessons around the clock — “Essence of Emeril,” “Molto Mario,” “Two Hot Tamales,” “Cooking Live with Sara Moulton,” and many others — Clifford shares a plethora of nostalgic anecdotes about the network’s initial evolution as well as his illustrious media career in the book, “The Least Likely to Succeed” (Lone Wolfe Press).
The affable Michigan native, who now resides in Chula Vista and also owns a home in Coronado, will share his tales and sign copies of the book at 11:30 a.m., June 30, at the Mission Valley Resort, 875 Hotel Circle South.
When discussing today’s Food Network format in a recent phone conversation, he quickly stated: “I’d like to see more cooking and less contests,” referring to the glut of reality-based elimination shows stacked with celebrity chefs, restaurateurs and food writers as judges.
“I originally saw the network as a way of teaching people how to cook,” he adds. “I’m disappointed by the lack of those kinds of shows.”
Clifford sold the Food Network to Belo Corporation in Dallas in 1997 after expanding its reach to more than 100 million households. (It’s now owned by Scripps Networks Interactive.) Decades before creating it, he started out as a sports announcer and disc jockey for an AM radio station in Kalamazoo, MI while completing his degree in communications from Western Michigan University.
He would later excel in sales, as well as scriptwriting and directing live television shows for various affiliates of the three major networks (ABC, CBS and NBC). His climb up the ladder took him to Arizona; California; and Atlanta, Georgia, where he befriended Ted Turner.
“Ted would tell me that cable TV systems were becoming more important than network television,” Clifford recalls, adding that his “big break” came in 1977 at the Providence Journal Company in Rhode Island, where he developed 12 television stations serving millions of viewers in nine states.
“I was put in charge of their non-newspaper operations, and I became the senior vice president of the company.”
Clifford retired from Providence in 1997 with the legacy of not only inventing the Food Network during his tenure, but for turning it into a hot channel among cable subscribers while sustaining the support of investors and big advertisers.
“There were plenty of sports and news and everything else on cable networks at the time — but not food. We really didn’t have any competition,” he says.
His book contains dozens of testimonies by industry veterans who worked with Clifford throughout his career, including a forward written by Robin Leach reminiscing about the “rodents that ran across the floor of the studio” during a live Christmas Eve dinner Leach hosted on the Food Network’s Manhattan set.
The pages also highlight Clifford’s academic struggles in high school, and how his sister, Rosejean Clifford Hinsdale, inspired him to enroll in college. The book, in fact, is dedicated to her.
“We came from a family of modest means, and I was academically and socially at the bottom rung during my high school years,” he says. “And I was voted the least likely to succeed by my classmates.”
Clifford credits numerous broadcasting and corporate mavens for his achievements, and speaks highly of the early talents that helped shape the Food Network.
“The show that Leach did making holiday dinner with his famous friends was absolutely important to the success of the network,” he notes. “We aired it every year for a while.”
Viewers also took well to Emeril Lagasse, who Clifford says was “frightened by the cameras at first until we gave him a live audience to interact with.”
Other notable hosts of the ’90s included Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck and Debbi Fields of Mrs. Fields cookies, all of whom cooked the food for their shows in a kitchen adjacent to the New York studio.
“They carried their prepared meals into our fake kitchen during commercial breaks to make them look like they were cooked on set. We did it that way because of New York City fire codes, which were later relaxed,” he revealed before pointing out that “we offered Martha Stewart a show, but she turned it down.”
When asked if he held any personal interest in culinary arts that may have fueled his ambition for the Food Network, he said, “My father was a chef before I was born and my mother was a homemaker who made wonderful German foods – but my true love was in broadcasting.”
Clifford began visiting San Diego for vacations with his late first wife, Marguerite, several years after retiring. He has since remarried and manages to squeeze in book signings about three times a month in cities around the country.
“I overcame the liability of ‘least likely to succeed,’ and because of that I started a scholarship fund for senior-year students from my high school in Michigan to help them go to college.”
Clifford’s book can be purchased on major websites for $24.95, although it will be available in limited quantities for $20 at the upcoming book signing.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.