Food Show Raises Interactive Stakes

May 30, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The Internet will be a key ingredient in “The Next Food Network Star,” which premieres June 5 on Food Network.

The winner of the series, who will be given his or her own cooking show on the channel, will be selected by viewers posting votes on Foodnetwork.com or by sending a text message via cellphone.

Interactivity is big this year at Food Network, said Beth Higbee, VP of new media for Food Network. “It’s been an interesting process, and each time we try it, it’s different,” she said. “But ‘Food Network Star’ probably has the biggest payoff because it’s only the people using interactivity who will actually determine the outcome of the show, which is pretty cool. We’ve never tried that at [Food parent] Scripps Networks before.”

Online features will also be a big part of promoting the show, which is getting the network’s biggest push since the launch of “Iron Chef America” last summer.

Hosted by Marc Summers, “The Next Food Network Star” will wrap up June 26, when the winner will be selected live.

Before the launch, the show will be promoted with AOL, Yahoo!, TVGuide.com and EOnline.com, according to Lynn Brindell, senior VP of marketing for the Food Network.

Cox Communications has created a channel on its FreeZone interactive service featuring behind-the-scenes video, and all TV spots will be interactive via Cox Digital Cable in Phoenix.

There will be national buys of broadcast and cable television, radio spot buys with promotional partnerships in the top 20 markets, print ads in Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide and Inside TV and outdoor advertising in New York and Los Angeles. A sweepstakes offering a trip to New York, where the winner will be treated like a star, is running in Us Weekly.

While Food Network wants the show to be a success on cable, it is also looking to add some extra flavor to its online business.

“What we’re constantly working to do is to make the experience of our Web site richer and fuller for our viewers,” Ms. Brindell said. “So they can go on the Web site. They can get to learn more and deeper information about contestants. They can become, essentially, more attached to what is going on in terms of the experience of watching as well as eliminating the contestants.”

The Web site even had a hand in choosing one of the final eight contestants from the 10,000 video entries the network received. Ten of those submissions were streamed online and viewers selected Hans Reefer, a 32-year-old cable news host from Talking Rock, Ga.

Ms. Higbee said the finalist selection attracted 2.5 million votes. “To have that much interest in something nobody knew about at the time is pretty incredible,” she said.

While the show is on the air, the Food Network site will offer a number of features, from episode details to trivia games to diaries that the network has asked the contestants to update each week.

Ms. Higbee added that the online component of the show has secured its own sponsors, including Honda and Nexium. That’s a big boost for the site. “It’s been difficult to get advertisers to buy solely into something online/interactive because it’s still an unproven format,” she said.

The Food Network site draws 5.5 million to 6 million unique users a month, the network said. The network also e-mails a monthly newsletter to about 1 million subscribers. Its videos are viewed 2 million times a month.

But Ms. Higbee wants to see a different type of Internet usage. “We’re hoping that audiences are looking to expand from just utility-based activity, like looking for recipes or show information, and that they really are having fun with more of an entertainment experience online,” she said. “What we’re seeing so far with the video voting is that they like that sort of thing.”

Wedding ‘Love Crawl’

Before “Food Network Star,” the network offered a play-along game with its hit “Iron Chef America.” The highest scorers got their online handles shown on the television show during the broadcast. “There was definitely a TV-to-Web, Web-to-TV interaction going on there,” Ms. Higbee said. A couple of thousand people played each week, and by the end of the series, some had accumulated millions of points, she said. “Iron Chef” attracts a younger audience “and they’re probably more attuned to doing funky things with their computers and cellphones.”

Food Network uses technology from GoldPocket International for its interactive programming.

The network also took online, cellphone and text messages during its Wedding Weekend special. The messages appeared on-air during the two-hour event under the screen in what Ms. Higbee called “the love crawl.” Wedding Weekend also had a trivia game online that 2,000 viewers played, she added.

Ms. Higbee said she expects “Food Network Star” to be even more attractive than the network’s previous efforts. “You’re actually choosing the outcome of the show. That’s a powerful payoff,” she said.