Will Booze TV Ever Go Mainstream?

TV is awash with shows about food and cooking. But drinking? Not so much. Kenny Herzog reports on why shows about booze have struggled to find mainstream success.

booze tv illustration jen kruch

It’s a Monday afternoon in late January, and TV host Zane Lamprey is packing up boxes in anticipation of moving his Studio City production house, Inzane Entertainment, into his LA home. Since its inception in 2009, the company has spearheaded several Lamprey-starring reality shows about the intersection of good booze and cultural traditions. Among them were HDNet/AXS TV’s Drinking Made Easy and National Geographic Channel’s currently airing Chug (which he initially funded via Kickstarter). Lamprey also hosted cult favorite Three Sheets, which aired on several networks including Travel and Spike, from 2006 to 2009.

But after nearly a decade of trying to make drinking-driven travelogues take root on television, he’s shifting Inzane’s focus toward film. “I’ve been pushing this oxcart up a hill for the past ten years, trying to get drinking shows to be mainstream,” he says, weary from being hot potato’ed between networks and weathering undesirable time slots.

If the typically indefatigable Lamprey has peaced out, is it possible that docu-style insights about the culture surrounding alcohol are doomed? Moreover, what makes them any less accessible or marketable than lifestyle franchises focused on upper class excess (i.e. Real Housewives) or our obsession with bartering vintage junk (i.e. Pawn Stars)? Even Dave Attell’s good-natured Insomniac (Comedy Central, 2001-2004) tour of American dives and clubs—a prototype of sorts for this genre—would probably have a hard time making noise above the din of screaming socialites and warring auctioneers.

One notable upstart is Travel Channel’s Booze Traveler, starring drinks expert Jack Maxwell, who investigates the world’s most exotic drinks and how they relate to cultural customs (e.g. drinking Sherpa-brewed beer in the Himalayas). The show premiered last November looking and feeling big budget, and benefitted from the plum lead-in of network mainstay Bizarre Foods. But even the Travel Channel brass acknowledge that Booze Traveler is defying the odds.

“We can sometimes, as an industry, throw the baby out with the bathwater,” concedes Booze Traveler executive producer Sean McKnight. “So if a show that is ‘about booze’ doesn’t work, sometimes we’ll throw the entire topic away. We try to take risks, but the truth is we’re often very risk-averse. We’re not playing with our money. We’re paying with the money of shareholders who expect returns.”

Corporate cold feet notwithstanding, another major impediment for televising the genre (regardless of sweeping trends or eager audiences), is advertiser pushback.

Perhaps straight drinking shows don’t traditionally rate well, but what if the drinking aspect is re-contextualized? Take, for example, Discovery’s Moonshiners, which dramatizes the illicit practices of American hooch-makers, essentially bundling a drinking show inside a more broadly appealing yarn about rural criminality. Moonshiners recently wrapped its fourth season with an average of 2.4 million viewers as of the January 6 episode (its third to last in the season), according to Nielsen.

This is the dilemma Discovery faced in 2010 when attempting to get behind Brew Masters, a travelogue featuring Sam Calagione, founder of the experimental brewery Dogfish Head Craft Ales. But the plug was pulled after only six episodes. The official reasoning was chalked up to poor audience reception (according to Nielsen, Brew Masters averaged a 942,000 viewers tuning in live or within seven days of each episode), but as Anthony Bourdain (whose No Reservations was backed by the same production company, Zero Point Zero) infamously insinuated, Discovery cowered under pressure from an unnamed major beer monolith.

“We learned a lesson about how the world’s biggest breweries, who are among the world’s biggest TV advertisers, work with major networks,” says Calagione. “We were really proud of the show, the way it portrayed craft beer [and] showed the excitement and passion and technical prowess of our industry, but basically a very large brewery-advertiser had a different agenda with regards to the future of our show.” (Discovery declined to comment for this story.)

Five years on, Calagione insists that, with the proliferation of independent, eccentric brewers, a show championing craft beer is better positioned than ever. (However, he does cite a “craft brewery that’s much bigger than Dogfish” whose show was cancelled in the eleventh hour due to advertisers pushing back.)

Perhaps straight drinking shows don’t traditionally rate well, but what if the drinking aspect is re-contextualized? Take, for example, Discovery’s Moonshiners, which dramatizes the illicit practices of American hooch-makers, essentially bundling a drinking show inside a more broadly appealing yarn about rural criminality. Moonshiners recently wrapped its fourth season with an average of 2.4 million viewers as of the January 6 episode (its third to last in the season), according to Nielsen.

Compare that with Esquire Network’s Brew Dogs, a fairly straightforward show about two British brewers combing the U.S. for fine beers. Nielsen data reveals it eked out only 107,000 viewers, on average, by the same metrics. Granted, Esquire Network has neither the established foothold with cable providers nor pedigree with audiences as Discovery, but these very partnerships are all indicative of how poised a series might be for success.

“It’s a strange arithmetic that makes calculus look simple,” says Booze Traveler‘s McKnight of what separates one drinking show from its competition. “You need the audience to be expecting the right thing, the right lead-in, producers who understand the material and don’t run roughshod over it, to establish a creative rapport with them. You need to handle the talent appropriately. It’s lots of moving parts.”

One important variable is, arguably, the most subjective: entertainment value. And Lamprey, looking back on his various stops and starts as an ambassador for the genre, can’t help but wonder: Does booze really whet audiences’ appetites?

“The bottom line is drinks are boring,” he says. “Watching someone make lasagna or turkey or an amazing dessert, there’s [an] evolution, from the ingredients to this amazing piece of food. So food TV is always [going to] have the upper hand over drinks.”

Calagione, undeterred, doesn’t see it that way. “I think you need a strong storyline and interesting personalities in addition to great production values to make a show interesting,” he suggests, echoing McKnight’s assessment. “There [are] plenty of documentaries that, on paper, sounded boring as shit that ended up winning awards.”

Everyone with a stake in a drinking show can agree on one thing: The future may lie online. After AXS dropped Lamprey’s Drinking Made Easy, he moved it over to the web and initiated his eponymous Zane Lamprey Show podcast. Calagione is working on a soon-to-be-announced project with an unspecified non-traditional platform that, he says, will share Brew Masters’ production values. He also notes that macro-brew conglomerates will have zero ability to influence, shut down or advertise on the show.

Still, at some point, even web series need to turn a profit to justify costs, comparatively minimal as they may be. YouTube sensation Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen and the Funny or Die-backed, historical satire Drunk History (now a Comedy Central TV property) have exceptional viewership (and recent Drunk Kitchen sponsors like State Farm Insurance don’t hurt), but they’re the outliers. Other streaming series centered on alcohol have yet to experience that kind of surge, possibly due to more of a niche, curated approach than the everyman humor present in shows like Insomniac and Drunk History.

While Calagione encourages his peers to partner up with respectable online brands (with funding, of course), such plainspoken optimism is of scant consolation to Lamprey, who can’t risk his own money or the time replicating what didn’t work for television at a more grassroots level.

But despite any personal resignation, Lamprey still believes that whether you’re tackling car repair or drink making on television, “It’s entertainment, so you just have to figure out what it is that people want.” Or more to the point—much like a drink itself—whether or not they want it straight up.

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  • Fritz Chapin

    But what about “Best Bars in America”, also on the Esquire Network? That show seems to have all the necessary ingredients for a hit. It has a compelling storyline of bar-hopping in various cities, fun hosts who meet colorful characters on their travels, and make sure to highlight not only the mixologists they meet, but their delicious concoctions.

    • Guest

      Hey Fritz,

      Best Bars was on my radar for the story, and I have seen it. I don’t have its ratings on-hand to differentiate it from Brew Dogs, but my hunch is that Esquire shows in general have an uphill battle compared to the larger conglomerate cable behemoths (although Esquire is ultimately parented by NBC Universal). Appreciate you reading and responding.

  • “The bottom line is drinks are boring,” he says. And of course he’s right. Who could bear watching one more wine expert swirling a glass of wine WHICH LOOKS EXACTLY THE SAME AS EVERY OTHER GLASS OF WINE!!

    We try ourselves, on our blog and in our book, to write about wine DRINKING as opposed to the wine itself. And suddenly there is something broader there, something more entertaining. But please, no more experts swirling a glass and telling us what it tastes like.

  • archie7699

    archie7699 • a minute ago

    It’s canceled and good riddance. I wish they’d cancel all the booze shows. No substance has done more harm to the human race. Nobody needs it in any amount. It once served a purpose when water sources were contaminated. Now it serves no purpose but to destroy lives and pad the pockets of wealthy stockholders. Medical benefit? You can get the same anti-oxidants in a glass of fruit juice. Relaxation? Go to any college campus and see how much they relax when they binge drink. Or go to the bars where both men and women fight and get arrested. Or watch COPS and see the wife beaters drunk on malt liquor. They don’t look very relaxed when they’re in handcuffs. Or, go to the funerals of the millions of people killed by alcohol. They look really relaxed in their coffins. Research has shown that the alcohol industry is kept afloat by the small minority of chronic alcoholics. I liken booze manufacturers to the British enslaving the Chinese with opium. A sign that the human race is growing into a civilized society is when people put down the booze. I’m not a Scientologist, I’m not even religious in any way. But L. Ron Hubbard was right about one thing. The human body is not designed to consume alcohol. It’s a dangerous toxin and akin to drinking formaldehyde.

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