Saturday, June 9, 2007

Bravo for Bravo - They Get It

Bold Statement Alert: The best television show for the Web 2.0 generation returns on Wednesday, June 13th to the best broadcast network for the Web 2.0 generation: "Top Chef" returns for Season 3 on Bravo TV.

Now, ok - I get it. Food is back in a big way - its sexy to be a chef, and the numbers for the Food Network continue to climb. Yet, there is more to this show than the topic -- and it has to do with the interaction between the producers of "Top Chef," the Bravo Network, and the fans of the show.

Let's back up - as I wrote in one of my other postings (Cntl-Alt-Lost?), traditional US network broadcast television is in crisis. With the creation of the time shifting DVR, the rise of video podcasting and devices to display those podcasts on large screen televisions instead of your desk in your office, and the proliferation of "long tail" (sorry) broadcast cable networks (Discovery Channel, National Geographic, HGTV, Bravo, etc.) - traditional network television (ABC, NBC, CBS, The CW and Fox) is finding its market share, and the control of the American mindset, dwindling in a way that it has never experienced before.

The Video Bucket Bargain Bin

The video entertainment experience can be expressed a series of four "buckets:"

  • Bucket #1: Traditional Network Television
    • Pros:
      • High production values
      • Big stars, big writers, big producers
      • Heavy marketing and rotation ensures consumer awareness
      • Mainstream america still thinks of this as "television"
      • Over-the-air (OTA) broadcast -- no/low cost to consumer
    • Cons:
      • High price tag
      • Dwindling viewership
      • Few choices, options and diversity
      • FTC Censorship rules inhibit creativity and risk taking (a $350,000 fine for saying "fuck" on the air? Are you effing kidding me?)
      • Audience numbers notoriously difficult to measure because of the nature of broadcast television. Need to rely on statistical sampling from companies such as AC Nielsen. (Who recently neglected to take DVR penetration - 11% - into account when issuing its scary warning the other week about falling viewership numbers. Jeez. Buy a copy of SAS, Nielsen, would ya?)
    • Examples
      • NBC, CBS, ABC, The CW, Fox
    • First Entrant:
      • National Broadcasting Company, 1939
  • Bucket #2: Subscription Television
    • Pros
      • very high production values
      • big stars, big writers, big producers - typically attracts feature film writers, producers, stars
      • large critical groundswell
      • freedom from censorship encourages creativity
      • No advertising breaks during presentation
      • Rapid adoption of new technology for video (5.1 Digital Audio, High Definition, etc.)
      • Heavy marketing ensures consumer awareness
      • Audience numbers easy and accurate to measure through direct subscriber numbers
    • Cons:
      • Very high entrance fee: cable or satellite charges plus subscription fee for specific station
    • Examples:
      • HBO, Showtime, Pay-Per-View movies and events
    • First Entrant:
      • Home Box Office, 1972
  • Bucket #3: Broadcast cable networks
    • Pros:
      • Low cost productions enable low entrance fees for producers
      • Excellent proving ground for new talent (actors, writers, etc)
      • Huge variety - genre's are split into the networks themselves (HGTV is about your home, Discovery is science and nature, etc.)
      • Cross marketing (NGC marketing on Bravo, for instance) ensures a wider reach than the numbers on each network would seem to suggest
    • Cons:
      • Need a cable subscription - higher consumer cost
      • Lower production cost can also mean lower production value - and often does
      • The vast array of stations almost guarantees fleets of "me too!" shows
      • Audience numbers: Same issue as bucket #1
    • Examples:
      • Bravo TV, National Geographic Channel, SciFi Network, USA Network, PBS, etc.
    • First Entrant:
      • Arguably, Public Broadcast System -- started in the early 60's as a loose conglomeration of small local broadcasters sharing local content.
  • Bucket #4: Video Podcasts and Internet Video
    • Pros:
      • Very low production entrance fee - often just a few thousand dollars - reduces barrier to entry to almost 0
      • Easy, low-cost distribution channels
      • Portable by nature - plays on iPods, PSP, Laptops or Plasma Screens easily
      • Huge variety of topics and materials
      • New podcast "networks" are starting to coalesce. (Revision 3, TWiT TV, etc.)
      • Like Bucket #2, audience numbers are easy and accurate to collect
    • Cons:
      • 95% of these are crap - almost unwatchable ego productions
      • Difficult to locate - no distribution channel means no centralized clearing house. Some aggregators exist (iTunes, MyPodcast, etc.) but not enough
      • Difficult for most people to set up automatic fetching new material
      • Almost zero marketing other than banner ads and placements on websites
    • Examples:
      • Cntl-Alt-Chicken, MoBuzzTV, Martin Sargent - Web Drifter, YouTube, etc.
    • First Entrant:
      • Oh, who the hell knows? It depends on who you talk to, but Video Podcasts started appearing in 2005

Meanwhile, back at Bravo...

So, the reign of network television with its censorship enforcements, restricted content, and 1950's business model thinking is rapidly drawing to a close. That's fine - the few gems on these networks (Lost, Heroes, 30Rock, etc.) will shine for a while, but eventually this type of talent and production will migrate to buckets 2 or 3 within the next 10 years.

To succeed with audience mindshare, and to gain numbers that cannot be directly measured by subscription costs thereby moving up the value chain, bucket #3 (Broadcast cable networks) needs to...well, do something different. Cross marketing between Bucket #3 stations is really just preaching to the choir, isn't it? You can't gain market share by showing ads to people who watch your shows anyway. This brings us full circle back to Bravo TV, who - whether through careful planning, or coincidently through "hey, let's just try this" mentality - may have just figured it out.

Think about "Top Chef"'s recipe (uh, sorry about the pun) for a minute:
  • Current Sexy Topic du jour (cooking)
  • Current Buckets #1 & #3 success topic (reality TV)
  • Current youth culture trends (sexy young hetro- and homosexual participants of both sexes who actually - and this is the shocker here - have actual talent for a change)
  • Current - and this is the key - Web 2.0 participation (fully integrated Web 2.0 site at
  • Current mobile web experience (text-to-vote, receive cooking tips on phone, etc)
  • Intelligent product placement throughout the broadcast is a way that is relevant, non-intrusive, entertaining and - the kicker: DVR-proof
As this show is running, a user can participate in any one of a number of ways:
  • Sit back and enjoy the episode
  • Live chat with other viewers
  • Read blogs from the chefs
  • Comment on the blogs and give feedback directly to the chefs and producers
  • SMS votes in for your favorite chef or recipe
  • Watch video outtakes
  • Download all the recipes shown on a specific episode, cook the food and then comment back on the blogs as to how the recipe went over at home
  • Apply to be a contestant for the next season
Some combination of this has been tried before to various degrees of success - but in the case of Top Chef, and the flawless execution by Bravo TV- this time the whole things works as a big, fun, holistic experience. (Can't believe I just used the term "holistic," btw.) The show is wildly entertaining, useful, relevant and a runaway breakout hit for the Bravo network.

Whether this recipe is reproducible is up for grabs. Bravo tried again very recently with "Top Designer," a similarly formatted show featuring home interior designers, and it was a disturbing, messy failure. So this may be a one trick pony that works only with something as elemental as food - but that hasn't stopped the other bucket #3 players from trying something similar. The SciFi Network, for instance, has given full Web 2.0 support to its "Battlestar Galactica," providing video downloads, voting for plot points, out-takes, cutting troom floor extra footage and a very DVD-ish producers/writer voiceover podcast that you can play as an alternative audio track to the show. Being a drama and not a reality TV contest, the effect is not quite the same, but it is clear that the Web 2.0 tie-ins to BG, combined with being a critical darling, has helped the show improve its reach over the past four years.


Will Bucket #2 players ever have this extensive a social network tie-in? No, but they don't have to -- they get their money directly from the consumer. It's a great model - if they fail, no one subscribes and the lights go out.

What about Bucket #4? Sure, absolutely. The very nature of a video podcast means that social networking tie-ins are part of its DNA. All that's missing for them to execute is a budget -- but as more and more people take notice, and ad sponsored revenue comes to the rescue - they will have the money to make these tie-ins to the web more professional and seamless. (In fact, Revision 3 shows - most notably "Diggnation" - does this effectively already.)

...and wither Bucket #1? Yup, they're effed. The network broadcast television machine is too mired in old-world business models and Hollywood "it's not what you do, it's who you know" thinking. Without a complete overhaul of mindset, Bucket #1 is just Dead Man Walking. Want proof? UPN and The WB - two fledgling television networks - struggled for relevancy for 10 years and last year decided to merge...and it was gonna be new! Different! A Steve Jobsian "Death To Conventional Thinking" moment in history! And, after 6 months the new network "The CW" was unveiled!! YAY! ..and...uh, it was exactly the same. Want more proof? Network television "seasons" still start in September - the traditional date of the television season that was created 40 years ago to coincide with ad dollars generated from the new American football season. Want still more proof? Focus groups, studio audiences, "sweeps" week...effing Donald Trump and Paris Hilton, for god's sake.

So, enjoy the last few seasons of "Lost," folks - Bucket #1 is about to become the piss bucket...which, coincidently, you can't say on NBC.


Kenley said...

this is a great post Rob, I had to read it a few times though...cause the moment you mentioned Top Chef, I kept thinking about how much you look like Tom Colicchio :)

RocketMan said...

Hah! Thanks Kenley - I like to think I am a better dresser than Colicchio. ;)

blogsurfer said...

Bravo TV had really brought us great shows like this. You should see "Flipping Out". It was a real estate investing show and I really love "Tori Hartman" on the show. She's the most interesting character on it.