I Know Why Gardening Shows Fail

It occurred to me at the Food show why cooking shows are super popular and gardening shows are going the way of the dodo bird. There were two whys.

  • Why #1Instant gratification. You spend 20 minutes cooking and you can have a decadent meal that impresses as well as satisfies. You spend 20 minutes gardening and you have a patch of dirt and the neighbors wonder if you are installing a mudpit for a pet pig.In the TV world, they can make a beautiful garden appear in 20 minutes. But they very rarely do. Yeah, so you can’t make it happen in real life, but most people can’t make the things they see on cooking shows either.
  • Why #2Gardening shows don’t get Gen X. I remember cooking shows as a child. They were ghastly boring (no offense Julia Child). Guess what, gardening shows are ghastly boring — present tense. Cooking show got revamped so that trendy Gen X’ers would gobble them up while eating their Chinese take out. It just so happens that the rest of the generational masses thought we had pretty good taste.

The wise (and elderly) television executives think that *BAM* throwing a handsome hunk of meat on the screen will fix falling ratings. While overt sexuality is included in the new breed of cooking shows, it takes more than that.

While watching Alton Brown, it occurred to me that the only gardening show that has survived the ratings fallout of gardening shows in the past few years is “Gardening By The Yard”. I think the two shows have a lot in common, much to do with appealing to Gen X.

First, both are packed with knowledge. You don’t just get how to cook and garden, but the whys, whens and whos as well. Gen X’ers had parents who carefully explained every thing to us no matter how many times we asked why.   The doctors said it would fuel our curiosity and so it has.   We don’t buy “Because I said so”.  

Second, both shows have truly entertaining host. They seem to be average people talking about things they are passionate about. I would not expect to go to Alton Brown’s house and be served a meal that would win the world’s greatest prize (as a matter of fact, I watched him accidentally coat the stage at the Fabulous Food Show with taffy when the recipe fell apart).  Don’t get me wrong.   It would be good, just not so good that it was intimidating.  Paul James makes you feel comfortable, too. Like you can relate.

Gen X’ers never learned to respect our superiors.   We don’t call our bosses “Mr.”  We think of ourselves as equals and we want to feel like equals.   Friends, even.   One wiff of “you are better than me” and we lose interest.   Many of the good cooking shows, the hosts are just a little self mocking.   Like you might be among friends. Gardening shows very rarely do that.

I think what is killing gardening shows is their tendency to talk down. To educate without entertaining. Come on TV execs. I learned my ABC’s from Big Bird and manners from Mr. Rogers. I was weened on entertaining education. I think the generation behind me had TV screens installed in the womb, so this is just the begining. Don’t just teach me and talk to me like you are the boring teacher from 9th grade. Make me laugh. Make it fun.   Be my friend.   (Yes, we think of the TV as our friend, ok)

Gardening should be fun but most of the time… on the TV… it just looks like work.   Who wants to watch that?

14 thoughts on “I Know Why Gardening Shows Fail
  1. Of course being a vegetarian probably gives me a different perspective, but I think what you said about slapping down a big chunk of meat to make the rating go up is exactly why I really hate cooking programs.

    It’s not that I hate the sight of meat, but I think it’s really boring. After all how many truly different kinds of meat are there available to the average person? Maybe 5 red meats, a few different kinds of poultry and 1 or 2 dozen kinds of seafood? That’s not a lot! I think it’s really boring watching them cook each one first in a pan, then the oven, then a stew, and so on. First with this spice, then that spice. There’s just nothing really creative about it.

    There are far more vegetables and flavors in vegetarian cooking, and far more interesting dishes to be had, but none with the appeal of the instant satisfaction of a chunk of meat.

    There’s also all the corporate interests behind the cooking shows. Someone has to pay the bills, and these shows aren’t put on for free. Just like the tobacco companies used to use Hollywood and TV shows in the 1960’s and earlier to very effectively promote their products, the food companies do the same thing now. When the tobacco companies used their influence to promote smoking on TV and movies as a normal part of life and something everyone does, huge numbers of people started smoking.

    In the same way, the factory farm foods being promoted on cooking shows become normal, and are not necessarily the most interesting or best things to be eating.

    There’s not so much money in gardening, the potential for promoting one kind of gardening as better than another is less and like you said there are no chunks of meat to raise the ratings. There’s no one out there to pay to promote gardening as a normal activity!


  2. i have a way simplier explanation:

    cooking is inherently interesting on TV. food is more deeply rooted in our brains, we can very easily imagine tastes and smells. just looking at a meal triggers responses in the brain that make you happy.

    also, cooking is social. we want to gather around kitchens, share meals, share drinks. likewise, we like to come back time and time again to our favorite cooking show.

    so yea, i think its less that gardening on TV is BAD, and more that cooking makes great TV.


  3. I was SO glad to see you give props to Paul James. He rocks. He is one of the few gardening shows that I couldn’t tear myself away from. One of the other, strangely enough, was that landscaper guy from Florida – Gary something. He was mesmerizing with all his curved borders and flipping the shovel to his hand with his feet.


  4. I must iterate my favoring Paul James. As stated previously, The Gardener Guy is great to watch. He also lives in the middle zones, so he is somewhat relevant to most anyone. Another favorite is “Landscaper’s Challenge”. I like to try to guess which one will be chosen. I tend to average around 80%, due to 25 years in the field. I have never watched a food show, they just don’t appeal to me. If I were to have a gardening show I would tie in some bird watching and attracting wildlife to the yard.


  5. I have to agree with you on “Gardening by the Yard.” Its entertaining, informative, and gets you hooked on gardening. Most of the other shows around all seem to be a rip and remodel landscape type show, not true gardening. Paul James does a great job. I wish there were more shows like his!


  6. Patrick – Wow! That was an interesting angle to come at it from. I never would have thought about that but I am glad you got me thinking on it.

    george – I don’t know that cooking is more interesting to watch. I think the hosts make it interesting to watch. But I do agree that gardening is a difficult hobby to make interesting to watch.

    Sylvana, gus & Dave – I love Paul James. He is so goofy and while he takes his garden seriously, he doesn’t take himself gardening seriously, which is fun. 🙂

    gus – I like the idea of tieing in animals.


  7. I really appreciated Jamie Oliver doing the complete package: recipes, human interest and how to grow spuds in a way that doesn’t look all that hard. When gardening and lifestyle goes hand in hand it works. I admit to falling asleep on garden shows where they natter on about rare plants that aren’t even available to the general public…totally disconnected to others, if passionate about their topic.

    I wonder if it sometimes has to do with the fact that everyone has access to a kitchen, but not everyone has a garden. Those renting and those flatting and those whose jobs lead to constant relocation don’t get that many tips from garden shows on how to incorporate greenery into their lives.


  8. Great post. I loved your reasoning and as a fellow graduate of the Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood Finishing School I have to agree with most of what you said. But there is another reason cooking shows do better (another commenter alluded to it) – everyone eats, far fewer garden. I used to love watching Ground Force on BBC America long before I started to garden this year. I wish it was still on so I could see if it would appeal to me now that I’ve actually laid flagstone and sod, dug a hole, and created a garden bed. I would generally zone out when he described the plants he had chosen, would I drool now?


  9. Sadly, today’s Gen X’ers have little time to spare for gardening, which is truly unfortunate. Between jobs, running the kids to school, ball practice, karate, ballet, etc, etc. it leaves little time for puttering around in the dirt. I think they would all be well served to spend time in a garden with their thoughts rather than running off to the psychiatrist to work out their problems. The kids would probably benefit more, as well. Sorry, this comment is from an “old fart” gardener.


  10. Heh, is it a coincidence you picked 2 of my favorite programs? I got Tivo Season passes for both GBTY and Good Eats. I also like Alton on Iron Chef, he makes that show.

    However… did you ever see Paul James’ cooking show? “Home Grown Cooking” it was short lived and very bad. He was basically stuck behind a counter with an apron on for the entire episode.


  11. Why cooking is more popular? eating concerns everyone – none of us can survive wihout it. Sometimes eating might be boring – if we eat all the time same meals, not a different variety. People search for new recipies to get out of the box they sit in. At the same time they can get creative while cooking.
    Gardening? Only half of the population is doing any gardening – very often they treat it as duty (like cleaning the house) without getting passionate about it.
    That’s the main reason – less interest caused by smaller number of potential viewers. … as everything is more and more commercial around… less potential profitability.


  12. The guy from Florida was Gary Alan. I forget the name of his show. I don’t think it’s on anymore, which is a shame. Paul James is great!


  13. Paul James is just silly enough to keep my attention, even if the content is not relevant to me. Landscaper’s Challenge is great because it deals with many budget ranges and locales. I don’t watch some garden/landscape shows because when they set out to transform a garden with $500, they end up with something that looks cheap and impractical.
    Everyone has to eat, but not everyone gardens, or even cares what their landscape looks like. Many Gen-xers in my part of the country don’t even bother to landscape their fenced-in back yards due to lack of funds, and the only reason the front is done is that it’s included in the purchase package. In the whole scheme of things, gardening is far down on the list of important life issues.


  14. Gary – Gary Allen still does a peice on a show called ‘Smart Gardening’. I like him and his hat. 😉

    As far as cooking being more universal…

    While I can appreciate that idea, the fact is, that it is not really. Surveys have shown that many people who watch cooking shows don’t cook at all, let alone cook what is being done on the show. The number of people who eat out rather than cook is rising rapidly. Cooking (especially the kind of cooking you see on cooking shows)is fast becoming a hobby for those who have the time, much like gardening.

    Gardening is also related to eating. Things must grow before you eat them. Farmers grow, resturants cook yet cooking shows are still more popular.

    It’s not the cooking but the eating that people enjoy. That still doesn’t answer why people like to watch cooking shows. Cooking is hard work and people just don’t do it.

    Cooking shows have really only in the past decade come into their cult like status. Cooking has been made fun. A kind of foreplay to the act of eating. Gardening shows severly lack that element of fun.


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