What I’m watching: Competitions to find cable networks new stars

One of the questions I’m asked most often goes something like this: “Do you really watch all of those shows?” The question is usually asked in disbelief, like I’d be a drooling mass of fat, unable to walk or form complete sentences, if I actually subjected myself to every show that I cover. That’s probably not too far off, which is why I do not–and literally could not–watch every episode of every show that has ever made news. I tend to give new series an episode or two, and I’ll watch only those shows I truly love (like, say, Deadliest Catch), or love to loathe (Big Brother).

However, there are a number of series I watch regularly that, ironically enough, I don’t write about regularly, simply because they don’t make news, or are engaging and absorbing but don’t offer anything that seems newsworthy. It’s kind of tragic that I’ve written a lot about The Hills, a show I practically never watch, but ignore the shows I adore. Thus, the birth of this new periodic series in which I’ll highlight series I’m actually watching.

Today’s installment: HGTV’s Design Star and Food Network’s The Next Food Network Star, which air Sunday nights at 9 and 10 p.m. ET respectively. Both networks are owned by Scripps, and the shows are definitely cousins, although Food Network got theirs out of the gate a lot earlier, as it’s now in its fourth season, while Design Star recently started its fourth.

While competitions between talented people are nothing new, both of these shows add a legitimate prize: an actual TV show on that network, which legitimizes the competition and ups the ante. And although they don’t always last, some past winners are now known more for their shows than for winning the competition, like Food Network’s Guy Fieri. First and foremost, both feature inventive challenges and (generally) talented contestants, never mind entertaining unscripted moments.

But what really takes both shows to the next level is their consequence, and we learn most about that during judging. Design Star focuses on how rooms look on camera–not necessarily how they look in person–and, eventually, the contestants’ hosting abilities, and its judges’ evaluation of those skills has improved since season one, when we barely knew the rationale for the judges’ decisions.

The Next Food Network Star, however, over-shares during judging, and that’s what makes it the (slightly) better of the two series. Two of the judges are actual Food Network executives, and thus they reveal a lot about the way networks behave when constructing shows as they discuss things like their brand and their stars need to interact with the camera. Thus, besides being a strong talent competition, it also offers insight into TV itself.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.