The Frustrating Way ‘American Idol’ May Have Influenced Food Competition Shows

Reality TV has grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple decades, and quenching fans’ thirst for unscripted television has led to an influx of different competitions.

It seems that almost anything can be turned into a contest as short-lived and much-maligned shows like Who’s Your Daddy (where male contestants competed to convince a female contestant he was her real father) and The Swan (where contestants underwent plastic surgery before competing in a beauty pageant) have shown.

Not all reality shows suffer the same fate as these ill-conceived versions, and cooking competitions are one place where the genre really shines. 

Even with the success of many cooking competitions, there is one particular element that can be off-putting to some viewers — and they may have the influence of American Idol to blame. 

Cooking competitions have grown in popularity and number

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When the Food Network was first conceived, it was just one of several niche efforts to figure out what viewers wanted from television. Over time, it has grown into an incredibly successful source of reality TV that has provided a platform for many celebrity chefs to rise to fame. Cooking competitions are a regular feature on the network.

Whether they feature seasoned chefs competing against one another for bragging rights or everyday home cooks seeking out lucrative cash prizes, these series offer viewers at home a chance to see some impressive cooking techniques on display.

From cupcakes to prime rib and from well-stocked professional kitchens full of top-of-the-line gadgets to jokey shows like Cutthroat Kitchen where chefs might be sabotaged with inadequate tools, there are competition cooking shows designed to meet everyone’s tastes. 

American cooking competitions have a distinct flavor

Fans have noticed a distinct pattern to American cooking competitions, and it becomes particularly pronounced when held up against the norms of British cooking shows.

As Screen Rant explains, “British cooking shows are typically more whimsical and lighthearted than American fare.” The hosts of the British versions of these reality competitions are often much more supportive and kind to the competitors, and the hosts are typically there to offer levity and smiles. 

Meanwhile, the American versions are “intense and treat food prep with the seriousness of an Olympic sport.” The hosts are often serious and curt, using their time on screen to remind contestants of what’s at stake and deliver ominous threats about the ticking clock or the high expectations. The American show’s judges, in particular, have a reputation for being tough, intimidating, and often downright mean. 

The difference lies in what audiences expect and want from the shows: “Stateside viewers are also enthralled by the meanness of reality television, so watching hopes get dashed in the heat of the moment is also part of the thrill. British programs tend to showcase the skill in a productive manner, without gutting the participants.”

‘American Idol’ may be to blame for cooking show cruelty

Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson
Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson | Jason Merritt/FilmMagic

Ironically, it may be the influence of a British judge on an American show that has made American cooking shows so much harsher than their cousins across the pond. Cooking competition fans took to Reddit to discuss the way that judges react to contestants.

The thread discusses whether judges are swayed by the personal stories contestants tell to set themselves apart from the crowd. One commenter pointed out the tendency for there to be “tough” judges and added a theory on where the trope originated: “It’s how it is for most comp shows here in America. Just [l]ike there always needs to be a ‘tough’ judge. That I swear they got from Simon Cowell.”

Cowell is now a staple in reality TV competitions of many kinds, but he rose to fame as one of the original judges on American Idol. Cowell earned a reputation for being stern and delivering his critiques with biting honesty. As one of the most successful American reality shows, American Idol had an influence on its predecessors, and Cowell’s steely judging style has shown up across the board.