Food Tube: a pukka recipe for the future of culinary content?
By Kate Bulkley
For The Guardian March 16, 2014
Jamie Oliver's cookery business looks to build its YouTube brands into offline hits
Jamie Oliver knows his onions … now his focus is on digital exposure for his recipes. Photograph: Rex Features
"If you don't want my gear [on TV], I've got plenty of other places to take it," Jamie Oliver told advertisers last autumn, brazenly and a tad cheekily, at a Channel 4 "upfront" preview presentation of its 2014 schedule.
No idle threat, either – Oliver's 14-month-old Food Tube channel on YouTube has more than 710,000 subscribers and will be joined at the end of March by another online video venture, Drinks Tube.
Food Tube is still only a small part of the chef and entrepreneur's TV shows to cookbooks and restaurants business, which has annual revenues of more than £150m, but is described by one of Oliver's executives as "probably our biggest future play".
Always an early and enthusiastic digital adopter – his website jamieoliver.com launched in 2001 and averages 8 million users a month – it is perhaps no surprise that Oliver has cottoned on to YouTube's potential as an online video distribution platform.
Jamie Oliver's Food Tube has had some 41m video views since it launched in January of 2013. While it is largely about Oliver cooking with his mates, Food Tube also acts as an umbrella brand for more than a dozen other cooks ranging from newcomers such as DJ BBQ, Food Busker, French Guy Cooking, Cupcake Jemma (Preview) and the newest addition, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Preview) .
The home page is crammed with short videos of Oliver cooking in front of noisy crowds, making advertiser-supported recipes like tasty Cajun rice and turkey burrito with Uncle Ben's rice as a sponsor, and barbecuing cheeseburgers named after cricketer Ian Botham.
"Jamie loves the freedom of Food Tube, and suddenly a diary that was impossible to get any time from, offered time – sort of like finding a fourth dimension," says Roy Ackerman, managing director at Oliver's TV production company Fresh One.
More cooks or new cooking videos are added three times a week. The director of food for the Jamie Oliver Group, Zoe Collins, says that the planned business model for Food Tube goes beyond simply creating a food-focused, multichannel network online that has millions of online subscribers. She also wants all the Food Tube cooks to become their own brands that work both on- and offline, selling products from cookery books to pots and pans, and hosting live events. The first of three Food Tube-branded books will be published in June featuring three of the cooks including Kerryann Dunlop, one of the original apprentices at Oliver's 15 restaurant.
Drinks Tube is still very much a work in progress, but will initially be divided into three broad areas: cocktails, beer and wine. "We are aware of a lot of great talent for whom this could be a natural home, and there isn't much out there serving that community at the moment," says Collins.
Drinks Tube – like Food Tube – offers an opportunity for new talent, cookery genres and formats, but where the profits will come from is still unclear. "Jamie is much more about the momentum of being imaginative and unconventional, rather than going straight for the commercial opportunity," says Ajaz Ahmed, chief executive of AKQA, a WPP-owned digital agency that works with the chef's company.
One area where profits are potentially more obvious is commercials production. Oliver launched new company Fat Lemon in January and it has made its first commercial for EE featuring Oliver with Kevin Bacon, the Hollywood actor who is in the mobile operator's 4G campaign, attempting to make the perfect bacon sarnie. The ad deliberately looks a lot like a Food Tube video and has had more than 3m views.
Competition in the online food and drinks space is heating up: last monthdigital media company Vice Media announced a partnership with The X Factor producer FremantleMedia to create food programming content for both online and TV. There is also the problem of translating the Jamie Oliver "halo" to other, lesser-known cooks on the Food Tube network. The bulk of Food Tube's video views are still of content featuring Oliver himself.
There is potentially more creative freedom in making a cookery programme without first having to secure a TV commission. However, despite his provocative comment at Channel 4's upfront presentation, Oliver does not sound as if he is about to abandon TV. "If TV and digital work together then I think they both become a more complete experience," he says. "Digital obviously has a global reach which gives it a different perspective and we have to consider that when building a dynamic global audience."
Ackerman sees great potential in Food Tube for traditional TV schedules because it is entirely original content and a testing ground that is "low-risk and global" for new talent. "It's not impossible to imagine a Food Tube TV channel," says Ackerman, adding that "serious conversations" are already underway with broadcasters in the UK and abroad about the new cooking talent it has unearthed – reportedly including Channel 4.
"Food Tube itself isn't going to make us a lot of money in the very short term," he admits. "But it is probably our biggest future play and, together with digital in general, is the biggest future-proofing for the group."