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In the television business, you are where you eat as much as you are what you eat.

TelevisionWeek Managing Editor Melissa Grego is tapping into Hollywood's penchant for the working meal with her TVWeek.com feature, Mel's Diner. Ms. Grego sits down with television industry players at their favorite restaurants, giving readers a window into the minds -- and appetites -- of industry heavyweights.

As each Mel's Diner guest dishes about what they're working on, planning and thinking about, Ms. Grego provides a unique view of the television business from the insiders perspective.

TVWeek.com invites fans of Mel's Diner to report back in the comments section on the meals, deals, or anything at all that is eating them about what the featured players have to say.

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Mel's Diner


August 2007 Archives

Mel’s Diner: David Kenin

August 28, 2007 12:16 PM

Who: David Kenin, executive VP, programming, Hallmark Channel
When: Monday, Aug. 20, lunch
Where: Hotel Bel-Air, The Restaurant & Terrace

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The Dish: David Kenin borrowed a line from a racier genre when he told me at lunch how he determines which pitches fit what he’s going for on the Hallmark Channel.

“We know it when we see it,” he said.

Easy now, dirty minds. Lots of cable channels are known for making some pretty dramatic switcheroos in their programming to pull a rating, but Hallmark isn’t one of them. David was talking specifically about original Hallmark movies, all of which are absolutely family-friendly. Most of them generally fall into the categories of romances, holiday tales, mysteries, Westerns and traditional dramas. There’s even some room for science fiction, he said.

Whatever the category, David has developed an approach for movies that click with ever-growing audiences without abandoning the wholesome Hallmark brand.

“We can deal with any situation or subject,” he said. “It’s how you do it.”

By talking about the consequences of less-than-exemplary behavior, while aiming to not be preachy about it, Hallmark can explore contemporary subjects in virtually all areas.

Just because the network’s programs aren’t edgy, don’t be fooled into thinking David himself doesn’t have an edge.

It has taken bravery and shrewdness to do what he has done for the Crown Media-owned outlet, which rewarded him with a rich contract extension this summer that keeps him around through 2009.

The veteran exec, who previously was president of CBS Sports and a honcho at USA Networks, arrived at Hallmark Channel soon after its August 2001 launch and quickly helped build up its ratings from what he calls the “flatline” he found when he arrived.

David put the first gun on Hallmark’s air (more on that in a moment), acquired “M*A*S*H” with a sneak-attack offer (no competitors at the time expected Hallmark to be a bidder) and has continued to build a distinctive original-movie business. More than 30 original pics are scheduled to air next year, marking the channel’s largest slate yet. If the sky were the financial limit, David would do 50 movies a year in order to premiere a fresh one each week, he said at lunch.

Hallmark is now a consistent top-10 player in prime-time viewership among basic-cable networks. The channel’s total audience rose 14 percent during the first quarter of 2007.

The programming strategy consists of family-oriented original movies in prime time, combined with classic television series at other hours. Hallmark also has rebroadcast rights to CBS’ “Hallmark Hall of Fame” movie franchise.

Hallmark wants to provide a place to go on TV that can be depended on for quality, positive content aimed at adults that wouldn’t pose a problem if kids were to walk into the room, David said.

“I’m not a prude, but I know a lot of audiences like to have one place you can go that is safe and secure,” he said, adding that much of the material on TV today would have gotten the perpetrators’ mouths washed out with soap when he was a kid.

Hallmark and its audience take its standards seriously. Any violence on the air is stylized, and the network is very careful about sexual content.

Among the classics Hallmark airs are a number of Westerns, a genre David introduced in one of his first programming moves.

When he got to the network in January 2002, he noticed “The Rifleman” on the shelf in the library. David thought it might be an issue for the family-oriented net, but he felt it also might connect with viewers.

So he put it on the air at 11 at night.

“I got a call from a colleague asking, ‘Who gave you the authority to put that on?’” he said.

When the ratings for that show came in, a 0.4 appeared where once had been zeros, he said.

Armed with those numbers, he told his boss about his colleague’s complaint, called it ridiculous and said he didn’t plan to listen, adding, “If I fail, fire me.”

The strategy worked.

David went on to double-run “Rifleman” at 11 and 11:30 p.m. It started doing well, they moved it to the afternoon, and a classic-genres-in-daytime strategy was born.

“Meanwhile, people were still saying we don’t allow guns on the air,” he said. “But we came to the conclusion that Westerns had a role. We realized, yes, we can put a gun in the programming because it can be in the context of right and wrong.”

Hallmark then acquired “Rawhide” and “Bonanza.”

While we were having lunch, David was in the midst of hammering out a new acquisition, which he declined to give details on. He also was anticipating a visit from his new-ish New York-based boss, Henry Schleiff, president and chief executive officer of Crown Media.

The “gun” battle was one of many tricky situations David had to navigate while developing Hallmark’s family-friendly strategy. Even his addition of “M*A*S*H,” one of television’s most popular and lauded series, was controversial, given some of the show’s colorful characters and its implicit commentaries on war.

More recently, David took a phone call from a viewer complaining about a scene in an original movie in which a 17-year-old girl asks her dad about sex.

David defended the programming, suggesting that a conversation at home with parents is the best place and way to get that information.

Sounded like a great answer to me, but the viewer remained incensed.

“A small part of our audience is very conservative,” he said. “That movie did very well.”

Dined On: It’s nice to eat where Jane Fonda eats. I’m just saying.

The icon was having lunch at the next table over at Hotel Bel-Air, adding to the already glamorous, airy ambience on the terrace.

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I actually didn’t spot her until well into our meal, which is kind of embarrassing considering I am a humongous fan.

Admittedly, I was distracted.

For one thing, I was absorbed in conversation with David. In addition to talking Hallmark strategy, of course, David captivated me with dishy, off-the-record (sorry!) stories about his memorable times on the restaurant’s terrace. Officially he says he loves this spot for the food, service and the outdoor setting—sans nearby traffic and exhaust.

The beauteous bougainvillea peeking through a white canopy above the patio provided atmosphere and another pleasant distraction.

I know: Excuses, excuses. So I’d be a lousy paparazzo! (Then again, I later noticed Jane’s blond do was in the background of nearly every pic I snapped of David. Beginner’s luck, I guess.)

Still, upon spotting Jane, I decided not to think twice about ordering dessert. I know, again with the excuses. But Jane Fonda eats here. And look at her—unbelievable. I mean, if I truly overindulged I could always go “feel the burn” later at the gym to make up for it, right?

So following a very nice lunch—a Mediterranean plate for me, tortilla soup and beef carpaccio for David and a chopped Cobb for corporate communications expert Nancy Carr—we went for it with dessert, a chocolate tart and peach pie, which we narrowly chose over a cherry concoction.

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So I’d be a lousy famous fitness icon, too. At least one dessert had fruit in it…

Mel's Diner: Devin Alexander

August 17, 2007 12:09 PM

Who: Devin Alexander, host of Discovery Health Channel's "Healthy Decadence With Devin Alexander" and author of "The Biggest Loser Cookbook" and "Fast Food Fix"
When: Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2007
Where: Devin's home kitchen, Brentwood, Calif.

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Dined On: Lots!

Do you ever watch cooking on TV and just wish someone would invent taste-o-vision already? Well, I got as close to it as you can Wednesday afternoon.

Devin Alexander, who is building a multimedia healthy eating empire, says tasting is believing.

After sampling an array of her signature dishes from her TV show (go here for video from her Discovery Health Channel show "Healthy Decadence") and books, including a reduced-fat-and-calorie version of the Big Mac (hers saves 174 calories and 19 grams of fat compared with the McDonald's original) and five different desserts, let's just say I'm a believer. And I will not have to eat again until about a week from now.

From a seat at the end of the home kitchen where she works with three assistants, I quickly found myself eating up all she had to say and serve.

The proof was in the Thai peanut noodle salad; it was in the manicotti; the Big Mac; and especially in the two different kinds of brownies. (I am aware that eating all of this and more in a single sitting is not necessarily healthy; it was research, people, research.)

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"There's such a bad stereotype about healthy food," she said.

The assumption, of course, is that if food is good for you, it tastes nasty. If it tastes good, it's got something weird and unnatural going on.

She often travels with a delicately balanced platter in her car to disprove the stereotype. She brings treats to virtually every media appearance.

It's a convincing strategy. The first bite I had at her house was of the Thai salad from "Healthy Decadence." Unbelievable. When she rattled off all the good-for-me stats about it, all I could say (mouth full) was, "Nooooh!" And, "Yummmm."

She told me she got a call from a magazine once saying that the staff was concerned. They had eaten her brownies. They saw the calorie count. And they wanted to make sure there wasn't a catch.

"They asked if they were going to get diarrhea," she said. That healthy-food stereotype again—some artificial fat substitutes and sweeteners will wreak a little lower GI havoc like that.

But Devin sticks to natural ingredients, subbing things like oat flour in only as far as the flavor is not compromised. If it tastes not right in the least, it gets yanked.

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And let me tell you, it tastes right. The Big Mac? The slightly oozy cheese and special sauce were bang-on. In fact, it gives me reason to go on the record right here in agreement with Star Jones.

When Devin appeared on "The View" a while back, Star said Devin's burger was better than Mickey D's. And in this case, Star, I couldn't agree with you more.

The Dish: To get her recipes just so, Devin works like a mad scientist. Often she spends a good nine hours daily in the kitchen working on tedious, detail-oriented processes, such as dissecting famous sinful favorites and measuring to minute detail alternatives and original recipes, too.

When she is out, she "reads every word on every menu."

"Mad scientist, it's kind of true," she said.

Mad busy magician is more like it.

The day I visited her, she faced a deadline for her third book, "The Most Decadent Diet Ever," due out in April. She also was anticipating the fall debut of new episodes of "Healthy Decadence" and the January premiere of Discovery Health's "National Body Challenge."

In addition, she's slated to appear on a new teen weight-loss show next summer, she writes a column in Women's Health magazine, makes frequent appearances on various media and does a bunch of product development and consulting.

She was a cheerful and energetic hostess nonetheless.

Among the products, she just consulted for Smart Ones. She also is in some super-secret talks about packaging and selling her 112-calorie, 1-gram-of-fat fudge mint iced brownies.

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On her wish list: Creating a healthy room-service menu for hotels.

Devin came to Los Angeles 14 years ago to be a TV writer. She was in a program at the TV Academy when friends and colleagues noticed she lost and kept off more than 50 pounds by cooking healthy. People kept asking her to cook for them (she has cooked for Reba McEntire and once, at a charity event where she'd cooked, heard Lisa Rinna running saying Devin's meatballs were the best she'd ever eaten). She figured she'd better go to culinary school if she was going to keep taking cooking requests.

Her big break came after meeting a "Good Morning America" producer who needed help with a healthy New Year's Eve segment in 2004 and hired Devin.

Everything Devin has done since and will continue to do is aimed at her close-to-the-heart mission: battling childhood and teen obesity.

The philosophies she shares are pretty simple. You don't need to deprive yourself to be healthy, and 20 minutes in the kitchen is a lot easier than three hours on the treadmill.

Living by those ideas pay off for her constantly.

"I was 55 pounds heavier as a teen. I was the girl sitting on the couch eating cookies in a small town in Pennsylvania watching 'Dallas' with her gay best friend who couldn't admit he was gay," she said. "Now, not only am I healthy, I'm around food all day. And when I get letters from people who relate to that, I love it.”

Mel's Diner: Phil Rosenthal

August 3, 2007 9:53 AM

Who: Phil Rosenthal, media columnist, Chicago Tribune
When: Friday, July 20, dinner
Where: Simon L.A., Sofitel Hotel

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Dined On: This time I picked the restaurant, along with TelevisionWeek Design Director Jennifer Ciminillo, who introduced me to Phil Rosenthal, media columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

I was a little nervous about it. I don't know Phil too well, but Jen said he knows a better restaurant from a not-better restaurant.

And geez, turns out I and Simon L.A. had a tough act to follow: Phil told us over dinner that the previous weekend, his wife took him to the famed Charlie Trotter's back home in Chicago for a multicourse birthday dinner. Trotters is a restaurant-or, perhaps more aptly, dining destination-known as one of the best in the world. Once while traveling in Australia, Phil told a chef that he was from Chicago. The first thing the chef said: "Oooh, Chicago. Charlie Trotter's."

Jen and I are fans of Simon L.A.'s dessert platter, which features cotton candy as the centerpiece. But I'm certain it's not revered halfway around the globe a la Trotter's. Still, the place is stylish, serves inventive drinks such as a grapefruit-basil martini and is centrally located, adjacent to the Beverly Center mall. They also serve a nice mac and cheese.

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Phil was in town for the Television Critics Association's semi-annual press tour. He's covered around 35 of the gatherings, having worked for 11 years as a journalist in Los Angeles before returning to his hometown 11 years ago.

We sat on the Simon L.A. patio. It's pleasantly lit and heated, but there was one slightly weird thing about the atmosphere: A marathon of sentimental songs piping all evening. Not bad songs, just noticeably on the sad side. If I was a girl on a date, I'd have been bracing to be dumped romantic comedy-style.

I e-mailed Phil a couple days later to ask what he thought of the restaurant.

"It was lovely on the terrace, despite all those sad songs, and the company was good," he wrote. "Comfort food is comfort food. I mean, mac and cheese, little Hostess-style cupcakes, meatloaf. All that was missing from my childhood was a TV dinner tray with peas and carrots sauteed in the syrup that spilled over from the dessert next to it and a 'Partridge Family' rerun."

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Phil, who lived on the other side of the hill when he was an L.A. resident, seems still to be perfectly at home in Southern California. But personally, going back to Chicago was great for him, he said.

"My wife, whom I met after she returned to Chicago, told me we probably wouldn't have dated if we had met when she was still living in L.A. because she didn't go out with guys who lived in the Valley," he said. "Now we have two variable-rate kids and a lovely mortgage."

He's also got the claim to being half of the first married couple covered in Mel's Diner. His wife, Jennie Rosenthal, introduced me to the magnificence of Michael Mina's lobster pot pie during NATPE in January.

The Dish: Call him the real Dr. Phil.

As far as I know Phil and his work, he's always got a wise way of looking at things. An insight or two I hadn't thought of, whether the topic is media, careers or personal stuff.

While at press tour, he was doing a lot of background and brain-bending for stories and columns down the line.

"I'm looking for trends and new ways of looking at what's happening to the media business in the digital age," he said.

The biggest story for Phil lately has been following Rupert Murdoch as he gunned for Dow Jones & Co.

"The implications of that and discerning his strategies to take that company forward in the 21st century, like Sam Zell's efforts to turn around Tribune, could tell us a lot about where all media businesses are headed," he said.

Tribune, of course, owns the Chicago Tribune, so that's got to be one of the trickiest companies for him to cover.

"Apart from noting Tribune Co. owns the Chicago Tribune in stories, you have to set aside the fact it's your own company in your approach and dig in as tenaciously as you would in covering any story," Phil said. "After all, that's what you're paid to do."

One challenge is that the folks at Tribune treat him no differently than anyone else covering them, and some people outside the company view him warily, he said.

He's not in completely uncharted territory, though.

When he worked at the L.A. Daily News and was in his mid-20s, he had to write a story that mentioned Jack Kent Cooke, who owned the paper.

"I was sent to see him by an editor who thought he should have an opportunity to comment," Phil said. "The result was a terrifying experience in his office that ended with him telling me he thought I did very good work but I needed to work on my deportment. Oh, and no comment."

The state of the newspaper biz continues to be a hot media topic, especially when critics from papers across the country are gathered for press tour.

"I wonder how long press tour will continue, but I've been wondering that for a while and it endures," Phil said. "It's no secret newspapers are re-examining the role of television critics and eliminating the TV books that once were filled with stories banked from TCA interview sessions.

"Blogging has changed things too, especially with wireless Internet access in the rooms," he added. "Maybe that helps. Maybe not. I don't know. What do I look like, Kreskin? You know the old saying: He who lives by the crystal ball learns to eat broken glass."

Top that, McGraw!