Rachael’s busy with her network talk show and a magazine. Mario’s canceled. Tony Bourdain’s hit the road for the Travel Channel. Sara Moulton’s starting up a PBS show. No question about it, things are changing at the Food Network, where ratings are down and the honchos are nervous.

With most of the Food Network’s former go-to stars now otherwise engaged, network execs are looking to fill the chef-lebrity gap by grooming new personalities and giving stepped-up opportunities to older ones. Southern-fried matronly cutie Paula Deen has been given the biggest leg up, with a new show called Paula’s Party, set to debut September 29. According to network insiders, there are high hopes Deen’s show will attract younger viewers.

Says Deen in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “I’m keepin’ the hair high and the expectations low, and that way I can’t lose.”

Hmm, right, but the Food Network’s current strategy of airing more info-tainment and competitive cooking shows (think Unwrapped and Iron Chef) at night rather than the more traditional daytime cooking shows seems to make more sense. Why pin hopes for spryer viewers on a white-haired grandma?

Says Food Network blog critic The Armchair Cook, “This blatant MTV-ization of the Food Network worries me. Sheesh, maybe if things don’t work out with Paula and Michael, they can give her a dating show, à la Flavor of Love. For old times’ sake, maybe they could call it Butter Flavor of Love.”

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