Jamie's kitchen nightmare as US series is sidelined

The Naked Chef had high hopes of making it big in Hollywood, but his TV series has been switched to a graveyard slot as ratings plummet. By Guy Adams
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He crossed the Atlantic with a can-do attitude, a suitcase full of silly clothes, and the naive conviction that a few flashes of that cheeky-chappy smile and some judicious use of Mockney would help him make it big in Hollywood. But, like so many other British stars, Jamie Oliver has discovered that American entertainment is a cut-throat business.

A year after he launched a "food revolution" that aimed to convince the world's fattest schoolchildren to rein back on their daily intake of burgers, pizza, nuggets and chocolate milkshake, the Naked Chef's career on prime time US television appears to be collapsing like an overblown cheese soufflé.

On Tuesday, hours before this week's third episode of Oliver's latest culinary television series was due to hit the airwaves, ABC announced that it had been pulled from its prime-time slot, due to disappointing ratings. In place of Jamie's Food Revolution, in which he was attempting to improve the calorie-laden diets of under-privileged inhabitants of Los Angeles, the network decided to air a one-hour recap of Dancing With The Stars.

Adding insult to that sudden injury, ABC added that Jamie Oliver will now be completely removed from its prime-time schedules for at least a month. The final four hour-long episodes of his programme are now scheduled to be broadcast in June. Even then, they will be aired in what is widely considered to be a "graveyard" slot – 9pm on a Friday.

The news leaves little prospect of there ever being a third series of the show that, in the UK, delivered such a wake-up call that Oliver was invited to Downing Street to tell Tony Blair what the government ought to do about Turkey Twizzlers. America may be the most obese nation in the developed world, but it does not take kindly to being lectured about eating habits; especially by a foreigner.

More pressingly, to the men in suits who run ABC, Jamie's Food Revolution has failed to gain a foothold in the ratings charts. Though critically acclaimed (its first series won last year's Emmy for Outstanding Reality Show), it has generated underwhelming viewing figures. For its second series, numbers dropped by around 40 per cent, to four million. To put that in context, Dancing With The Stars reruns tend to attract more than ten million pairs of eyeballs.

Call this dumbing down, if you will. But the show's decline is perhaps also Oliver's fault, for deciding to film his second series in Southern California. Last year's debut series was shot in Huntingdon, West Virginia, where the relative novelty of media attention, along with the supportive attitude of local lawmakers, helped create a city-wide buzz that led to some signal achievements. He even persuaded local schools to take pizza off their breakfast menu.

Los Angeles is a tougher nut to crack. The size of the metropolis has made it tricky for Oliver to gain media attention. And his requests to film inside local school canteens have been consistently denied by the LA Unified School District, a famously dysfunctional body responsible for running the city's public schools.

That has left a gaping narrative hole in the show that has at times seemed impossible to plug. On occasion, Oliver has even accused local bureaucrats of deliberately attempting to deprive him of shooting locations. "I'm disappointed that as public servants they feel they have the right not to be transparent," he said. Recent episodes saw him walking down palm tree-lined streets dressed as a tomato, rather than venturing into school canteens to expose their full telegenic horrors.

Right is undoubtedly on his side. The proportion of obese children in Los Angeles has increased from 18 to 25 percent in the last decade, while, a typical LA school lunch consists of "hot and spicy chicken chunks," "beef steak fingers in gravy" and a pudding of "peanut butter and jelly pockets". The problem is that Oliver's cameras have so far this series been unable to film a proper exposé.

The School District, for its part, has run an effective propaganda campaign, with officials appearing on Fox News to argue that Los Angeles is an unsuitable location for a "food revolution", and that Oliver was only motivated to film there because he's hoping to launch a Hollywood career.

"Los Angeles is ranked 46 on the Men's Health 'fattest city in America' list, so we weren't sure why he wanted to film in LA," said Roger Alaniz, a spokesman. "We asked Jamie's people and they said to us 'Jamie just wanted to live in LA,' which didn't make it seem like he was committed to the cause."

Further alienating a portion of Middle America was a headline-grabbing criticism Oliver made of Sarah Palin at a public Q&A session in February. Asked to comment on the former Alaskan governor's effort's to undermine Michelle Obama's healthy eating initiatives, Oliver declared: "Clearly, on this issue, she is a fruit loop."

If anything positive can be taken from Oliver's US adventure, it perhaps involves his efforts to persuade schools to stop serving chocolate-flavoured milk to children. In a final effort to shore-up ratings, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel last week had both Oliver and John Deasy, the LA Schools Superintendent on his chat-show.

During their conversation, the British chef informed Deasy that a glass of flavoured milk contains several spoons of sugar, and suggested that it will "kill kids". Deasy responded that it was time to remove them from menus. But, he added, Oliver's cameras would not be allowed to witness the impact. "It's an improvement we're going to be taking on our own."