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PBS’s new Great American Recipe cooking competition has some alarming fine print

PBS’s new Great American Recipe cooking competition has some alarming fine print
A recipe in a cookbook. For PBS's cooking competition The Great American Recipe, contestants are asked to give up their recipes to PBS without attribution. (Photo by Ron Lach/Pexels)

At the Television Critics Association summer press tour, PBS announced its own brand-new reality competition: The Great American Recipe, which PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger said “will showcase talented home cooks from different regions of the country, each competing for their signature dish to win the national title.”

PBS has great food reality TV shows, but doesn’t currently have any competition shows—and certainly doesn’t have a signature competition series. While PBS introduced American audiences to The Great British Baking Show, it was an import from the UK that Netflix now licenses; likewise, The Great Pottery Throw Down, another wonderfully charming talent competition, is available to American audiences via HBO Max.

So it’s great to see PBS develop its own signature competition—assuming it aspires to be like those other shows. The press release described the new show as “an uplifting cooking competition” that “will give talented home cooks from different regions of the country the opportunity to showcase their beloved signature dishes.” But there’s a catch.

Tiffany Derry on Top Chef Amateurs, and Graham Elliot during Top Chef season 15. Both will judge PBS's new Great American Recipe
Tiffany Derry on Top Chef Amateurs, and Graham Elliot during Top Chef season 15. Both will judge PBS’s new Great American Recipe. (Photo of Tiffany by David Moir/Bravo; photo of Graham by Tommy Garcia/Bravo)

Its judges will be Top Chef’s Tiffany Derry, former Masterchef judge Graham Elliot, and chef Leah Cohen, while Alejandra Ramos will host. In the press release, Tiffany said:

Having dedicated my career to the pursuit of wider representation in the culinary world, I feel truly lucky to be taking part in The Great American Recipe on PBS with Alejandra, Leah and Graham. The diversity of American cuisine perfectly reflects our country’s many cultures, and I can’t wait to experience an array of dishes from some of the nation’s best home cooks.

The show is produced by VPM and Objective Media Group, a division of All3Media America that has also produced HBO Max’s 12 Dates of Christmas and TBS’s The Cube. The actual format of the show isn’t clear, but it will involve some cooking, and its winner will be on the cover of a new cookbook:

From family favorites passed down through generations, to internationally influenced recipes that are quickly becoming mainstays of American cuisine, the series mixes camaraderie with competition, revealing rich personal stories and the inspiration behind the contestant’s favorite recipes. The Great American Recipe will culminate in a finale that features the finalists preparing an entire meal for the judges to make their ultimate decision. The winning dish will grace the cover of The Great American Cookbook, which will also feature recipes from all of the contestants and the show’s host and judges.

The Great American Recipe’s casting application

The Great American Recipe is currently casting, and its application says “We are looking for brilliant cooks across the US to share their signature recipes with the nation. This is an opportunity for talented cooks to share their inspiring stories and beloved recipes.”

The fine print, however, has more to add. People who apply will be do a lot more than “share” their recipes: they’ll be giving PBS ownership of the recipes for “no compensation” and “no credit.” It’s bizarrely draconian.

To be clear, reality TV show legal agreements often have unnecessarily broad terms, with lawyers covering every possible outcome to protect the network. RuPaul’s Drag Race’s contract, for example, says its producers can take over applicants’ existing YouTube channels and get a percentage of revenue from them; Survivor’s contract says it will own the copyright of any work created or performed on the show, like if a player makes up a song.

Somehow, it still surprised me to see similar language in a show that’s for PBS, which is public broadcasting. The casting application (archived) asks typical questions, such as “What about your personal background or experience would make you a unique addition to our series?” and “What influences your cooking”?

It also asks applicants to “list 5-7 of your signature recipes. These can be anything you like to cook for friends and family.” And then the 1,950 word “terms”—which applicants are required to agree to—include these two sections (the highlighting is mine):

2) No Compensation; No Credit.

You understand that you will not be paid, nor receive any fees, sums, consideration, or remuneration of any kind for the Material, the use of your Name and Likeness or any rights granted to PBS and/or any Sublicensees herein. You further understand that you will not be entitled to receive any credit or attribution of any kind in connection with PBS’s and/or any Sublicensees’ use, if any, of the Material or any other rights granted by you to PBS and any Sublicensees. Any credit or attribution is at the sole discretion of PBS.

5) No Return of Material; Material Not Subject to Confidential Treatment.

You acknowledge and agree that once you submit the Material to PBS, such Material will become the property of PBS and PBS will be under no obligation to return such Material to you. You further acknowledge and agree that following your submission of the Material to PBS, PBS is under no obligation to keep or preserve such Material or keep such Material confidential and may freely disseminate such Material in accordance with these Submission Terms.

I asked PBS about this, and a spokesperson assured me that “All recipes will be appropriately credited” in The Great American Cookbook. Of course, the terms say the opposite.

When I asked if PBS and its production companies were standing by their demand for ownership of applicants’ intellectual and creative property, I was told: “The terms remain unchanged but recipes will always be appropriately credited.” In other words, you have to trust them.

Is this just typical legalese? Well, The Great British Bake-Off does not ask for ownership. The terms that GBBO applicants were asked to agree to when applying for this year’s Bake-Off include this language:

5.1 You will retain copyright in any material submitted by you on the Application Form or to the Application Website, in whatever form, including without limitation written material, recipes and photographs, (“Material”), but we shall be entitled to use the Material in accordance with the Rights granted hereunder without obtaining further permission or making any payment to you.

That seems perfectly reasonable, especially for a show that is so well-established, and I’m unclear why PBS, VPM, and Objective Media Group America can’t give similar consideration to the people handing over their recipes to a brand-new, untested series.

Update, Jan. 2022. At the Television Critics Association winter press tour, I asked the judges and VPM Chief Content Officer Steve Humble about this requirement. Here’s that part of the press conference:

Andy Dehnart: Just to apply for this last year, people had to give up ownership of their recipes to PBS for, and I quote from the application, “no compensation” and “no credit.” As far as I can tell, that’s not at all standard. The Great British Bake Off doesn’t do that. 

Steve, why is it necessary for PBS to own the recipes? And to the judges, I’m curious if you would agree to do that with your own recipes, if you think the risk is worth the reward of giving up your family stories.

Steve Humble: PBS actually doesn’t own the recipes.  The people continue to own them.  We are licensing the recipes to be able to use them in the cookbook, and we definitely are going to make sure that people are appropriately accredited. I don’t know where that information came from, but that’s…

Andy Dehnart: The language was exactly like that on the casting application.  If it’s changed since then, that’s great to know. 

Steve Humble: No, it definitely has.

Judges Leah Cohen, Tiffany Derry, and Graham Elliot did not respond.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.


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