Made some picks for your Top Chef fantasy team yet? If not, you’d better get going, because the hottest food show franchise in television has morphed into a multimedia money machine for its just-started Season Five. Now there’s so much exclusive content for the web and for web-enabled phones that watching the show is a mere prelude to the full Top Chef experience. We’re not saying it makes sense to participate in a fantasy league where you don’t know your players’ full identities (it’s first names only on Top Chef) and have never tasted their food. But you might as well play along, because you can’t beat this show for stirring up interest in cooking, restaurants and eating in places like yours—not to mention revenue opportunities for its owners.
Guess again if you think that four editions of Top Chef were about as much as the television audience could handle. Season Five’s Top Chef: New York debuted to the show’s highest ratings ever, attracting 1.9 million adults in the key 18-49 demographic (a 27 percent gain over Season Four) and 2.7 million viewers overall (a 19 percent gain). It finished No. 1 in all key demographics in its time period versus its cable competition. In short, the Top Chef combination of high culinary standards and reality show backbiting and drama is a gold mine.
But cable isn’t the only exposure this show gets. Online action for the Season Five debut was hot and heavy at BravoTV.com, where the Top Chef: New York website generated a 105 percent increase in page views (1.1 million vs. 527,000 generated by the Top Chef: Chicago premier last March). Those are the kinds of numbers ad buyers can’t pass up.
Bravo is looking to drive web page views even higher this year via some new interactive features. The big one is the “Top Chef Fantasy Game,” wherein viewers select a team of three show contestants each week and garner points by how well the trio performs on the show. Fans who post the weekly high scores win a Top Chef cookbook and an oven mitt. The high scorer for the season takes home $2,500. Kind of a modest prize for a three-month-long national contest, no?
How exactly do players earn points? Whoever designed this game had a keen eye for what takes place on the show and what viewers pay attention to while watching it.
The most points (6) are awarded to the chef who wins the week’s elimination challenge.
Four points are accrued when a participant makes it into the top group at the Judge’s Table, wins the episode-opening Quickfire Challenge or is designated MVC: the week’s Most Valuable Chef. (MVC isn’t part of the television show; Bravo “officials” will select one after the fact each week to spice up fantasy league scoring possibilities.)
There’s more. Three points are awarded to any chef who helps a fellow competitor during the show. And any chef who utters “I’m not here to make friends” or some variant on that theme earns a single point for his or her fantasy owner.
Points are taken away when a fantasy team’s chefs do any of the following:
* Gets bleeped (-1), We’re imagining there will be plenty of deductions on this one.
* Cries (-1). Ditto.
* Takes a taste from a utensil that is used during preparation (-2).
* His or her dish is declared over- or underseasoned by the judges (-2).
* Talks back to the Judge’s Table (-2).
* Fights with another contestant (-2).
* Forgets an ingredient (-3).
* Is relegated to the bottom group at Judges’ Table (-4).
* Is eliminated (-6).
If anything can get viewers to watch even more intently than they already do, this sounds like the gimmick that will do it.
Other online features include “Memory Match” photo games; a Foodie IQ quiz; “The Wong Way to Cook,” in which Season One participant Lee Anne Wong shows viewers how to make each week’s winning recipe; plus interviews and blogs from current and past participants. Viewers can also “Rate the Plate” to vote for the dish they think should have won each week. Considering that viewers don’t taste any of the dishes, and only get fleeting glimpses of most of them due to the show’s rapid-fire editing, we’re not sure if the results here will be meaningful.
Leaving no stone (or revenue opportunity) unturned, Bravo has also figured out how to adapt Top Chef information for web-enabled phones. Exclusive content here includes contestant and judge Q&A’s; photo diaries; foodie faves; video tips; wallpapers; and ring tones. Want to get in on the action? Just text CHEF to 27286 and you can “join the Top Chef mobile fan club and receive behind-the-scenes dish and other exclusive interactive content from the chef-testants, host and judges.”
And don’t worry, gamers. You’re not being left out. PC and MAC users can try their hand at Top Chef: The Game, creating dishes in a virtual kitchen. It goes for $19.95 a copy. Mobile fans can also play a Top Chef-related game on their phones. “Top Chef Challenge” enables players to get a virtual gig as a dishwasher in the virtual kitchen of Tom Colicchio’s fictional restaurant and then try to work their way to the top. It’s available for a $6.99 one-time download fee or for a $2.99 monthly subscription fee.
Whew! This show has been merchandised so many different ways it’s hard to imagine how much money is rolling into Bravo and the show’s producers. But we know how much money is rolling out, at least to the chef-contestants and the culinary community at large: none. Unless they capture the $100,000 grand prize, contestants don’t get anything, except an intense burst of fame that is quickly forgotten.
In fact, even that $100,000 grand prize doesn’t seem to be a difference-maker in real-world restaurant development terms. Of the show’s winners, only Season One champ Harold Dieterle has actually opened a restaurant: Perilla in New York City. The others winner—Ilan Hall, Hung Huynh and Stefanie Izard—have ventures “planned” or are “looking into” possible ventures.
Hey Bravo: How about sharing the wealth a little more with the contestants and, in the case of the winner, sharing it a lot more? If you’re going to brag about how much Top Chef’s TV ratings are up and how rapidly the online component is gaining attention, then you can afford to loosen the show’s purse strings. A lot.