California HR

America’s Test Kitchen Curdles Its Executive Transition

We wrote last May about the kerfuffle between ABC-TV and Kelly Ripa when the network moved Live! with Kelly and Michael cohost Michael Strahan off the show behind her back (see “Pop quiz: Will she be Ripa roaring mad?”). The diminutive Ripa and the global network have since kissed and made up, although the proof will come in her next contract negotiation.

kitchen

PeopleImages / iStock / Getty Images Plus

This year, the drama comes out of Boston rather than New York, from America’s Test Kitchen (ATK), the most widely viewed cooking show on public televi­sion. For decades, Christopher Kimball was the face and voice of the brand, the self-proclaimed founder of the show and its companion program, Cook’s Country, and companion publication, Cook’s Illustrated.

America’s Test Lawsuit

In 2013, 20 years after Kimball started Cook’s Illus­trated, the company’s board and investors wanted to prep a successor to the 62-year-old founder, seeking someone who could manage a 200-employee company and expand the digital market. In September 2015, the board hired a CEO to take over the business side of the operation, which made Kimball boil over. Within 2 months, his employment with ATK ended, but he still hosts the Cook’s Country shows, which air through this summer. He is conspicuously absent from the ATK cast.

Kimball has since started a company called Milk Street, which in October 2016 launched Milk Street Magazine, a 32-page ad-free publication (just like Cook’s Illustrated), and is producing a 30-minute cooking show hosted by Kimball. Milk Street has sold the new cooking show to WGBH-TV in Boston (the erstwhile home base of ATK and Cook’s Country).

Two weeks after the first issue of Milk Street Maga­zine hit the bricks, ATK responded by suing Kimball, claiming he breached his employment contract by cre­ating Milk Street while he was still on ATK’s payroll and using its time and resources as the base. ATK also sued Kimball’s wife, his administrative assistant, and his PR agent, all former ATK employees and agents, whom, they say, Kimball poached and took over to Milk Street.

Cooks Spoil for a Fight

ATK’s complaint is stuffed with detail, accusing Kimball of misusing his role as an ATK employee and using ATK recipes, marketing advice, and other resources to lay the groundwork for Milk Street. Anticipating a backlash against suing the man who was its face for 20 years, ATK launched the website whywearesuingChristopherKimball.com. The site features the complaint, a chronology of Kimball’s al­leged misconduct, and supporting e-mails.

Kimball filed his answer to ATK’s complaint in early December, denying all claims. He responded that he has no noncompetition agreement with ATK and asserted that he acted with its knowledge and permission. He denies that ATK’s recipes are trade secrets because they are available to any sub­scriber. He has also filed a counterclaim calling whywearesuingChristopherKimball.com a defama­tory website designed to harm his business and repu­tation, and “[impugn] his character and integrity.”

It’s ironic that ATK, known for patiently and painstakingly finding the best scientific solution to difficult problems, butchered this public relations feast so badly. Christopher Kimball is synonymous with the ATK brand; by attacking him, ATK is wound­ing its own reputation. Consumers try TV recipes and accept their gadget reviews and taste tests because they trust them. You watch because you like them. Nobody watches cooking shows for the drama. But drama is what ATK went out of its way to create.

Prep Ingredients to Prevent a Food Fight

Litigation conducted on the Web is generally liti­gation out of control—emotionally satisfying, but il­logical. During the 2 years that the leadership crisis was simmering, ATK couldn’t prep the ingredients needed for a smooth transition, letting the mess spill into public view. The result is a menu of controversy that cannot help ATK and a 2017 season of ATK in which Kimball’s absence is sorely felt.

The lesson here? Don’t allow transition difficul­ties with a high-profile principal to boil over, and be cautious about how you stir the pot. Especially when credibility and audience loyalty are your stock in trade, you ought to avoid a food fight at all costs.

Mark I. Schickman, an editor of California Employment Law Letter, can be contacted at schickman@freelandlaw.com.