Woonsocket Call

Bour­dain cap­i­tal­ized when mo­ment ar­rived

Foodie eased into vac­uum left by poker’s demise

- By STEVEN ZEITCHIK

An­thony Bour­dain de­lighted mil­lions of peo­ple with a ca­reer that took him around the world, in­tro­duc­ing view­ers to all kinds of new cul­ture and food.

That ca­reer al­most never hap­pened.

In the tele­vi­sion busi­ness it’s of­ten bet­ter to be lucky than good, the adage goes. But some­times it’s best to be some­thing else: in the com­pany of the des­per­ate.

Bour­dain, who trag­i­cally took his own life in Paris on Fri­day, was a case study in this ax­iom.

A 40-some­thing chef and au­thor was far from a slam­dunk tele­vi­sion host when Bour­dain met with a mid-level TV ex­ec­u­tive named Bill Mar­gol, then the head of pro­duc­tion at the Travel Chan­nel, in 2004.

Bour­dain, at the time, had a lit­tle-seen show on the Food Net­work called “A Cook’s Tour” and was oth­er­wise untested in the world of tele­vi­sion. At most cable net­works, he wouldn’t have passed muster. There would have been one meet­ing and a po­lite show­ing of the door, par­ties sep­a­rat­ing with cool good­byes, and maybe a half­hearted prom­ise to work to­gether in the fu­ture.

But the Travel Chan­nel at the time was a forgotten cor­ner of Dis­cov­ery Inc. The me­dia gi­ant had chal­lenges at far big­ger net­works, like Dis­cov­ery Chanel and TLC. Few ex­ec­u­tives were pay­ing at­ten­tion to what was hap­pen­ing at a niche brand way down the dial.

Even more im­por­tant, the Travel Chan­nel was al­lo­cat­ing many of its pro­gram­ming hours to the World Poker Tour; the card game at the time ac­counted for as much as one-quar­ter of its rev­enue. The tele­casts were off-brand and, worse, view­ers’ in­ter­est in watch­ing poker was be­gin­ning to fade. Travel Chan­nel would take any­thing new it could get its hands on.

“I think it was a per­fect storm,” Mar­gol, now a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive at PBS, said by phone Fri­day. “You had a dy­namic per­son­al­ity look­ing for some­thing new but you also had a chan­nel fly­ing un­der the cor­po­rate radar that re­ally needed a new direc­tion.

“I’m not sure,” he added, “we would have done any­thing if that wasn’t the case.”

Bour­dain him­self wasn’t even sure what kind of show he wanted - his ini­tial pitch was for a se­ries about street food.

But Mar­gol and his team worked with the jour­nal­ist and a pro­duc­tion com­pany called Zero Point Zero to hone the idea. Soon they’d come up with a con­cept for a show, called “An­thony Bour­dain: No Reser­va­tions.” It would have Bour­dain trav­el­ing to new global lo­ca­tions and en­coun­ter­ing dif­fer­ent types of peo­ple to talk about food and more.

The pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager of the Travel Chan­nel, Rick Ro­driguez, had de­parted, leav­ing no top ex­ec­u­tive in charge, Mar­gol and sev­eral other col­leagues were the de facto heads. They de­cided to green­light the pilot, set in Paris. Bour­dain and Zero Point Zero flew off to make the show.

Soon after, a new pres­i­dent-gen­eral man­ager ar­rived at Travel, a Bri­tish ex­ec­u­tive named Pat Younge. A more sea­soned Amer­i­can might have taken one look at the pilot and said “we need to get rid of this.” But Younge was not schooled in the ways of U.S. tele­vi­sion. And he wanted to make what he in­her­ited work.

“There were a lot of doubts [among Dis­cov­ery ex­ec­u­tives] be­cause we were giv­ing up a sig­nif­i­cant amount of in­come,” Younge, who now runs a pro­duc­tion com­pany in the United Kingdom, said by phone Fri­day. “But I was a new gen­eral man­ager de­ter­mined to make my mark.” He or­dered five more episodes.

In July 2005, the first episode of “An­thony Bour­dain: No Reser­va­tions” aired. It bombed.

The show was watched by fewer than a mil­lion peo­ple. View­ers didn’t know who Bour­dain was, and when they did, they didn’t get the bold­ness of what he was try­ing to do – the first few min­utes of the episode were a black-and-white homage to the French New Wave. (It also in­cluded the line “why French peo­ple don’t suck.”)

“No, it was cer­tainly not a hit out of the gate,” Mar­gol said, giv­ing a dry laugh.

An­other episode, set In Ice­land, fol­lowed. It fell just as flat.

Younge thought about can­cel­ing “No Reser­va­tions.” But then he won­dered if it ac­tu­ally might make sense to go the op­po­site way: big­ger. More shows, more places, more bold­ness. Peo­ple needed to ex­pe­ri­ence Bour­dain in as many con­texts as pos­si­ble.

“I knew this was some­one they would re­spond to,” Younge said. “They just had to see him.” Be­sides, Younge re­ally needed some­thing to fill the poker void.

A third episode was set in, of all places, New Jersey. Then Viet­nam. Malaysia. Si­cily. Las Ve­gas. Soon au­di­ences were pay­ing at­ten­tion.

“View­ers would say ‘I don’t care where he’s go­ing. I just want to go with him,’” Mar­gol said. “They weren’t re­spond­ing to the sub­ject – they were re­spond­ing to the per­son who was tak­ing them by the hand and show­ing it to them.” The ratings started to climb. An­other sea­son was or­dered, then an­other.

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