Of course, many of us have been familiar with Marc Summers since his days hosting Double Dare on Nickelodeon. But Summers has been in the television business, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, for over thirty years. His next project with the Food Network is producing the upcoming Dinner: Impossible, starring acclaimed chef Robert Irvine and debuting on Wednesday, January 24th at 10 PM.
Mr. Summers spoke with TVFoodFan.com about his involvement with the Food Network, the challenge of producing a television show and what's in store with Dinner: Impossible.
Despite his presence on the Network these days, Marc Summers wasn't necessarily looking to get into food television. His move from game shows and talk shows to the world of food TV was a combination of both necessity and opportunity. "I had a good run at Nickelodeon and Lifetime, but I was out of work," said Summers. Fortunately, Judy Girard, with whom he had worked at Lifetime, was named vice president for programming and content development for Scripps Networks. Discussions with Girard led to a show called It's a Surprise!, which debuted in June, 2000.
According to a Cable World article from that month, Surprise was, "a weekly show in which viewers are invited to send emails, pictures and videos to coax Food Network to attend their surprise party -- and then bring it to life." If you're having trouble remembering it, you're not alone. "The surprise was that nobody was watching the show," said Summers. Focus groups may not have liked the show, but they liked Marc Summers.
The Food Network saw another opportunity. It had taped a pilot of a new show called Unwrapped with Marc Silverstein, who would go on to host The Best Of. Summers said that he immediately saw the potential of the show, claiming that, "it could be what Biography is for A& E…the voice of the network." After an initial rocky start, they moved Unwrapped to Monday at 9 PM. Seven years later, it's still on the air.
Summers calls working at the Food Network, "the greatest job in the world...it's perfect from management on down." He says that he also gets along well with the other on-air personalities, possibly because, "I don’t compete…I'm the last host left on Food Network that doesn’t cook."
It's the rapport that he has developed with the network's on-air culinary talent and his own time in front of the camera that has also brought Marc Summers success as a producer. His production experience goes back almost twenty years to Double Dare, and has resulted in the creation of his own production company, Marc Summers Production, Inc. Just as his move to the Food Network came about partly out of necessity, his foray into production reflects another reality of the television business. "At some point in your career, you get older," said Summers. "The more experience you get, the less they want you on camera."
Summers, however, has been able to gain that experience while at the same time staying on camera, providing him with an understanding of the creative process and the logistical structure necessary to put together a show like his upcoming Dinner: Impossible.
We've had a couple of posts over the past two months about Dinner: Impossible. The first gave us a little bit of information about the show, including the premise, wherein acclaimed chef Robert Irvine must "overcome culinary obstacles and deliver a delicious meal before his time runs out." The second article featured a look behind the scenes from the perspective of someone involved in one of the episodes. As you may remember, it also included a photo of producer Marc Summers with a rubber chicken. Other than posing with goofy props, what does he do as the show's producer?
Summers said that he's responsible for the overall production, and that, "the buck stops with me." This includes hiring the show's staff, finding and working with a below-the-line partner on the production and coming up with a star for the show. Although Robert Irvine was a well-known chef with an impeccable pedigree of cooking for presidents and queens, it was an in-person appearance that Summers saw that sealed the deal.
Two sources had approached Summers about the possibility of a show featuring Robert Irvine. Interested in the prospect, Summers saw Irvine perform in front of a live audience. Although you may think that someone who used to cook for the British Royal Family would be stuffy and stodgy, Summers found him to be highly engaging, a trait he believes will translate to a connection with the Dinner: Impossible audience, saying that Irvine is a, "unique and interesting person who is going to shine." After having worked with Irvine during the taping of a number of shows (and having tasted his cooking), Summers is even more effusive in his praise: "Robert is a dream to work with and his food is amazing."
At the time of our conversation, I had only seen the first round of commercials for Dinner: Impossible...those that featured Irvine walking and talking in front of a black background. Since the interview, however, they have begun running a new commercial (which, unfortunately, isn't among the previews listed on FN's Video Center) that really emphasizes the fact that Irvine has no idea what his challenge will be prior to the start of the show. It also shows a laughing, more engaging Irvine, perhaps to dispel the myth that all British reality stars are humorless, stern and intimidating. In all, we think it's much more effective than the previous spot.
Of course, a star and a production crew are only two-thirds of a show. Summers needed a hook for the show that would put Irvine in a position to show off his abilities while giving the audience a rooting interest. The result was a show premise in which, according to the Food Network's site, "Robert (with the help of his two sous-chefs, George and George) is thrown a new culinary curveball and the team must figure out a way to solve their challenge before time runs out."
As the head of production, it is the responsibility of Summers and his team to come up with a new scenario for each episode. According to Summers, the process is a collaborative one, with ideas coming from staff pitches, input from the Food Network and from Summers' own ideas. Some of the ideas for the show come up by chance. Although he couldn't share with us the premise, he did say that one idea for an episode that is about to tape came to him by overhearing a fellow passenger while traveling from New York to Philadelphia on a train. Business cards were exchanged and a chance encounter will end up as an episode.
It's easy to be jaded about the "reality" of today's reality programming. Everything from fame-seeking contestants to meddlesome producers have created an atmosphere around these shows that makes one question whether what they are seeing is the real deal or not. According to Summers, that won't be a problem for Dinner: Impossible. "It's true reality...nothing is fake." Despite the fact that the scenarios undoubtedly require a tremendous amount of logistical planning and pre-production, Summers said that Irvine, "has no concept of what the challenge is," and that everything is done in real time.
For someone who never went to culinary school, Marc Summers has played a considerable and noticeable role in the success of the Food Network. And it's a role that you can expect him to continue to play. As you can imagine, producing a television show is a lot of work, and Summers has been traveling non-stop, taping new episodes and preparing the show for its debut on January 24th. As if that wasn't enough, he also just taped 14 new half-hour episodes and a special episode of Unwrapped. So, his fans can rest assured that they'll be getting to see plenty more of Marc Summers very soon.
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