25 August 2009

TV Casting calls: foodies as cheap fodder

In the Early Period
of television broadcasting, the landscape was rapidly populated with locally produced homemaking shows hosted by prim home economists and righteous nutritionists.
These shows exhibited traits inherited practically wholesale from their radio progenitors. In the Modern Period, however, reproduction has become a central concept of television programming.

TV Cooking Shows: The Evolution of a Genre, by Kathleen Collins

Marketers see Food Bloggers
as the gate keepers to the food world online and therefore target people like myself. Such is the nature of food blogging. Marketing and PR folk don't really understand blogging and think we operate like journalists, willing to paste their press releases into our templates and hitting publish at the whim of their lascivious appr

Most recently I find I am becoming the target of casting agencies struggling to locate the required people for their cattle call of TV auditions. And what do I get out of it in return for publicising their auditions? Nada. They get paid, but I don't. Hello, isn't there something wrong with this picture?

Having worked in Marketing and Advertising for over twenty years, I keep abreast of media trends and am fortunate to have insight into the industry. As a consequence I have not regurgitated any of these casting calls here. But for the average food blogger it's different, a casting call may - in the backs of their minds - be construed to be the opportunity to the career in the food media they've always dreamt of. In the main it will not be. More likely it will be a humiliating experience, because cooking shows that use amateurs are all about a free ride for the TV station and production company at the expense of the passionate amateur gastronome.

Think of a traditional, well produced TV show as a banquet. In order to elaborately feed the hunger of many with enticing morsels, thousands of dollars are required, along with a brigade of highly strung creative professionals who take a great deal of time to prepare an offering which is downed in mere moments. After it is served, there is no guarantee of a good review or repeat custom.

The fortunes of any free to air network TV show is determined by Advertising. Production companies dream up TV shows in the hope that they will be purchased by a TV network who - hoping to draw big marketing dollars - in turn shop the idea to media companies and advertising agencies. The idea is to use these gatekeepers to lure multi national company marketing people to spend millions advertising during the airing of the show. Ad dollars then cover cost of producing and purchasing the show with the aim of everyone making a profit.

Advertisers hope that the viewers will be enticed in turn to buy the items advertised. The more popular the show, the higher the ratings, and the better the exposure for the advertisers, who aim for a sales spike and to build brand loyalty - preferably the 'cradle to grave' variety, which influences children and in turn their parents to buy those particular brands for life.

Compared to sit-coms, soap operas, tele-movies, mini-series, comedy and dramas, reality shows are cheap TV shows to make. They are the snack food of TV: highly processed, full of undesirable ingredients and are unhealthy in the grand scheme of not being a source of income for professional actors and media personalities in our small film and television market.

The sets used in reality shows are cheap, the lighting rigs simple and the cast is generally made up mostly of non professionals who, provide their own wardrobe and cost considerably less than actors and performers to hire. And because people leave the room or channel surf during ad breaks, advertisers will also pay for product placement of their goods during the filming of the show, again reducing the cost of the production for the makers. Instead of offering you an adventurously creative meal to dwell on and ruminate over, reality shows are equivalent to the cheap thrill of junk food when a Stoner gets 'the munchies'.

Last year, when it was clear that Big Brother had out stayed its welcome globally on prime time TV, Australia's Channel 10 was hungry to continue reaping the rewards of cheap reality shows filled with free products supplied by advertisers. They followed up with a syndicated version of the USA's Biggest Loser. But although it rated well, this show did not meet the heights of Big Brother in the ratings. It also had a limited scope in terms of which companies would advertise alongside a dieting show.

Then late last year I received an email from a production company asking if I would consider auditioning for a new food show, or at the very least, could I spread the word amongst cooking enthusiasts that auditions were being held?

I declined on both accounts. The show was Australia's syndicated version of Masterchef. It was a concept ripe for heavy product placement of kitchen equipment and packaged food goods, using non actors for entertainment.

When I made background enquiries about Australian MasterChef I discovered that this was not going to take the form of the UK MasterChef, as aired on the Lifestyle Channel, where talented cooks who were looking for a career as a chef were discovered. Instead it was to be a sensationalised reality show hybrid, taking elements of the original and mixing in all the tricks of previous reality shows that played people's natures against each other, distorted personalities with clever editing and generally reduced the contestants to awkward and cliched caricatures. If you will, it was to be a combo cooking show meets Survivor, Big Brother, Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

Being a talented non professional cook was not going to be the primary thrust of the casting of contestants. Typically in this medium, it was key in auditions to locate personalities that could be moulded to create popular entertainment and potentially be marketable in the broader sense of advertising and merchandise opportunities. There would be the scope to guage popular sentiment from the viewership via Social Marketing in order to adjust the show in order to engage the viewers as the series stretched out.

Being in the business of spin myself, I struggle to watch reality shows. For me it's like knowing the ending of a book before I read it. I know exactly what will happen. But worse is the notion that naive individuals will be manipulated and humiliated for an audience braying for blood in the most base form of human nature, for the purposes of entertainment and primarily so that the TV network and production company turn big fat profit.

Reality shows are reliant on drama. If there is no naturally occurring dramatics, they must generate it. They do this by magnifying small things that appear irrelevant in the day to day of the contestants performance, they do it by inserting expressions and sound bites out of context to create 'issues on set'. They do it by repeating these scenes after each ad break. To my chagrin, this is undertaken at the cost of the dignity of contestants aiming for a chance to change their fortunes.

Aussie MasterChef's final episode recorded an average national audience of 3.745 million, making it the most watched non-sport TV show, beating out Australian Idol in 2004 which held the previous record of 3.3million viewers. Capitalising on this success in the near future will be the celebrity version of the show and a childrens version is up for discussion.

The advertisers involved are ecstatic to say the least, and naturally the other networks are scrambling for their piece of the action. Before the MasterChef series had finished airing, I was sent a casting call for Channel 9's The Coles Great Aussie Cook Off, a show that "aims to find Australia's greatest family of cooks". The idea would appear to be a spin off of a Coles instore promotion which was a “real-time shop & cook competition”. Not a supporter of the big two supermarkets, I again declined to promote the show.

Channel 7 is not to be left out, a couple of weeks later they too contacted me for their show My Kitchen Rules which is not a follow up to My Restaurant Rules but a challenge between teams of two home cooks, filmed cooking in their own kitchens. They are required to transform their homes into a restaurant "for one pressure filled night" - heaven help us! How cheap is that? And thus far no indication of a prize for any contestants.

And finally, the last horse to bolt over my line is the LifeStyle Food Channels' Come Dine With Me. This is syndicated from the UK's Granada production and is also produced in Germany, France, Hungary, Spain, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, The Netherlands, Sweden and Norway. Twenty half hour episodes are planned to air early next year, with hopes that it will be as big a success as its tedious UK counterpart, which has run to nine series.

If you haven't seen it, this one takes five average folk who feel that they are good dinner party cooks and hosts. Again they cook in their home kitchens, taking it in turns to host a dinner party for the other contestants, who then grade them on their performance. Expect to hear petty comments, general nastiness, personality clashes, whilst witnessing teary melt-downs and amateur dramatics along with tasteless decor and general humiliations, in this even cheaper production. In England contestants vie for a thousand pound prize, but as this show has not announced any sponsors, a prize is yet to be determined.

Watching the networks scramble into this genre is fascinating to watch. The success of their productions will be weighted heavily on their timing and execution. My advice is if you plan to dip your toe into the action, be wary and go in with a sense of humour. Expect nothing and you may be pleasantly surprised. But most of all be prepared to be manipulated cheaply for entertainment purposes.


Ed Charles said...

Excellent assessment o the situation. PRs are so used to journalist republishing because it makes their job easier that they just think it natural bloggers will. Worringly I see some bloggers being sucked in.
What makes blogs unique is that they are personal stories and recommendations not pages that have to be filled and are done so with PR material.
I think that is why journalism is losing its way and will continue to do so - not enough money for incisive reporting. That is where we should be filling the gaps.

Anonymous said...

Great in depth, behind the scenes read Sticky. You must get dpressed just turning the TV on?!
Although you are privvy to all the tricks of the trade, do you still find yourself occasionally drawn to watch these shows?
Do you also think the viewing public are able to be more discering?

penny aka jeroxie said...

Fantastic post and great insight. It makes me wonder if I've done the right thing now....

our man in Canberra said...

Enjoyed the post – you covered a lot of ground – the developing relationship between bloggers and marketing folk needs to be examined.

A couple of points. Not all reality programs are cheap to produce. True, you save on actors (and to a lesser degree writers) but the backend costs rack up the bucks - camera ops, sound recordists, plus squadrons of editors and producers to bash all the raw footage into a cohesive narrative. IMO, Masterchef, despite serving up large chunks of studio based action was no exception, (on the other hand some of the other threatened cooking programs you mentioned do look more cheeseparing).

Second, Masterchef Oz was less about cooking than the UK version but for many viewers this made it more ‘hooky’. I’d guess most of them saw the dubiously structured team challenges and other exercises for what they were and worked out early on that it wasn’t really a straight cookery shoot out. Doing this also (unintentionally?) addressed what might be one of the weaknesses of this sort of show.

Just before the program commenced George Calombaris said during an interview (possibly parroting a line from MC’s marketing bumpf) it would appeal to viewers because while not everyone can sing or dance, most of us cook. At the time I thought: yeah but we can see and hear somebody dance and sing on TV but not taste food. Taking some of the focus away from the cooking and making it more about the contestants made this less of a stumbling block.

As for these programs taking advantage of amateur cooks seduced by the 15 minute blandishments of broadcast media, I’m not so sure. Australian reality TV has been around for almost eight years, so its manipulative loops and dips register with most viewers and prospective contestants. Even if it doesn’t initially (and they missed this post) it’s hard to imagine anyone going through all the application forms, interviews and auditions to come out the other end still thinking it was just about the food.

Whatever the case, a good post, it got me thinking.

stickyfingers said...

Thanks for the kind comments. I often wonder if I've done the right thing when I post on a more challenging subject than straight dining stories, and appreciate the support.

Ed, I find as I am approached to write Social Media Strategies I have to first educate my clients. Most recently I was told that if one of my clients was to have a Twitter feed every tweet must be approved by the marketing department & the PR company that represented it. The same applied for any blog or micro blogging platform. This was clearly a lack of understanding of the medium and possibly a great way to damage the company's profile online.

Steve, I could only tolerate small bites of MasterChef myself but think the production company deserve kudos for what they pulled off in order to capture viewership. The general public is the lowest common denominator in Marketing terms and today they want TV-crack: nasty, titillating, addictive stuff that requires little concentration to watch.

Penny, I understand some Bloggers enthusiasm, and we know a number who auditioned and became jaded once they saw behind the scenes. Aussies are very trusting in the global scheme of things and by and large do not realise what will become of them in the hands of TV Producers and directors. I think this is why I felt the need to shed more light on the subject with this post.

Our Man In Canberra, According to Screentime - the production company that made Underbelly - a regular TV show can cost between $300k to $4million per hour to produce. Underbelly 1 had 1400 people on the payroll and each successive series has had more. Masterchef came nowhere near that.

A single 30second ad booked during Masterchef cost in the region of $60k, not including production costs, roll overs etc; multiply that over the course of the weeks the show ran. On top of that much of the kitchen equipment & food was provided by sponsors. Wardrobe was largely provided by either sponsors and the participants themselves. Placement prices rose over the course of the production as the popularity soared.

In terms of the participants and people who entered casting, many said that they a) wanted to be a chef b) wanted to demonstrate their cooking prowess/educate others with their cooking c) wanted to be famous. Most of those in category B were eliminated.

If you use Poh as a case study you will see that she has been on TV prior to this and is well known for stunts that will draw attention to help the sales of her art.

She is attractive and articulate and knows how to behave on a set. For her purposes she is willing to play the cute and the nasty card where necessary. This kind of person is ripe for candidacy of a reality show. Fremantle Media obviously felt this way as although she failed both the audition and a challenge, they continued to give her second chances to ensure they had the kind of product they wanted.

Unknown said...

Great read thanks

stickyfingers said...

Thanks Stephen & welcome to the blog. I'm very glad to have found your blog via Steve Cumper too. BLOG ON!

Anonymous said...

an excellent post

GS said...

Maybe bloggers could get together to ban not just responding to these PR emails but also by just not posting about them (or tweeting). They must have rubbed have gleefully rubbed their paws together with the free coverage Masterchef got.

The last request I got was from a PR person on behalf of SBS - hey would I like to promote their food related content on my blog. I gave the abbreviated reply about my blog not featuring ads. But it seems some bloggers thought it was a great idea.

I guess we don't all think alike

stickyfingers said...

Thanks also to Grocer and Another Outspoken Female

AOF I know I bang on about this, but I agree that marketers should look at the blogs they are considering approaching and get an impression of the value set of the blogger before mailing them with requests for unpaid advertising.

Social Media/Web 2.0 is being bandied about as a new advertising medium, but that is not its primary function and many marketers do not realise this. The bottom line is it is a place of factual exchage, a sympathetic connection and fast paced medium that can not be treated like traditional media.

Ed and I have been discussing an opt-in list for marketing via the Australian Food Bloggers Conference group. These lists are common in regular marketing and advertising sectors and can be purchased for commercial purposes. Funds could be channeled back into the conference for the puposes of further educating bloggers and opening the way for face to face exchanges.

I think this route would be easier to manage than a 'do not contact' list.

I have written this piece with the hope that it opens more bloggers eyes, so as not to be taken advantage of by marketing and TV shows, with the hope that the message also spreads amongst the readership of blogs.

I think as Ed mentioned this is the true role of blogging, to inform in the ways that traditional media can not. And the reason we can do this is that we are unhindered by promises made to advertisers.

stickyfingers said...

Today I received another casting call from My Kitchen Rules - but from another source.

It occurred to me to mention here that film crews generally are not respectful of your home. If you are a contestant you will have an enormous clean up job on your hands after the crew have left. Please also be mindful of the clause in the terms and conditions where they state that they may edit the show to defame you.