Jamie's kitchen nightmare: his show is getting the chop

Celebrity chef switched to 'graveyard slot' as TV ratings plummet

Guy Adams
Thursday 05 May 2011 00:00 BST

He crossed the Atlantic with a can-do attitude, a suitcase full of silly clothes, and the naïve 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 their daily intake of burgers, pizza, chicken nuggets and chocolate milkshake, the Naked Chef's career on 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 TV series was due to hit the airwaves, ABC announced that it had been pulled from its prime-time slot, because of disappointing ratings. In place of Jamie Oliver'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 said that Jamie Oliver will be 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: nine o'clock on a Friday night.

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 Oliver'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 10 million pairs of eyeballs.

Call this dumbing down, 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 Huntington, 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 school canteens have been consistently denied by the LA Unified School District, a huge and famously dysfunctional body responsible for running the city's 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 horrors.

Oliver is clearly in the right: the proportion of obese children in Los Angeles has increased from 18 to 25 per cent 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 so far this series, his cameras have 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 First Lady Michelle Obama's healthy-eating initiatives, Oliver declared: "Clearly, on this issue, [Palin] 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. 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 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 it 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."

Transatlantic flops

Jeremy Paxman

When BBC Worldwide launched a US version of Newsnight in 2008, many believed Paxman's acerbic interviewing style would prove popular. One year later, the show was axed.

Ant and Dec

The double-act thought they had cracked the US when their TV gameshow Wanna Bet received huge cheers from its studio audience in 2008. It transpired the crowd was paid to applaud and the show had flopped.

Robbie Williams

Four years after swapping the UK for LA, the Take That singer finally gave up on repeated attempts to woo US listeners and returned to the UK in 2009.

Little Britain

Few TV critics saw the funny side of Matt Lucas and David Walliams' spin-off comedy sketch show Little Britain USA, which was branded 'tasteless'.

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