NBC Universal is a good-news / bad-news story where TV is concerned: the broadcast network has a big name but low ratings, but it has a number of successful cable channels that pay the freight, The natural question is: how could you take a kind of show that has worked well for its cable properties—say, Top Chef on Bravo—and scale it up to a broadcast network? (That is, if the broadcast network doesn’t scale itself down to the level of cable first.)
In the case of America’s Next Great Restaurant, you do it the same way you scale up a restaurant from a boutique outfit to a franchise—exactly the same way.
Bravo has been successful over the years by targeting a certain kind of demographic audience—what it calls “Affluencers”—with shows about upscale consumption and services, of which Top Chef is a prime, and creatively successful, example. It’s a show about chefs who run restaurants that aren’t for everyone, cooking food that is not necessarily for everyone.
This works well for Bravo, a targeted cable network. To take the concept to NBC, you do what you do with a mass-market spinoff of an upscale business—broaden the concept and make it more widely accessible. That’s the notion behind Next Great Restaurant, which is really about Next Great Restaurants, plural—that is, franchise ideas that can take one broad idea (fancy tacos, meatballs &c.), brand them with prestige and sell them as, in the words of host Bobby Flay, “good food that everybody can afford to eat.”
On a network that is pairing the show with Celebrity Apprentice, Next Great Restaurant is a more business-oriented show than Top Chef, which emphasizes the difficulty of running a restaurant from the kitchen side, and in its first episode, it emphasized franchise conflicts and personality conflicts more than “flavor profiles” or the minutiae of kitchen work and food trends. [Update: unfortunately for the show, the debut episode’s overnight ratings were still more cable-level than broadcast-level.]
It’s no Top Chef, but then I wouldn’t expect it to be; on its own terms it is so far engaging, and its potentially an interesting way of dramatizing a shift in mass food culture—that is, the gradual adoption of high-cuisine ingredients and concepts into mass-market food (in the manner of, say, chipotle peppers becoming a mainstream ingredient, or Wolfgang Puck selling pizzas in the freezer section). To continue the restaurant analogy, I don’t see Next Great Restaurant yet as a destination that I would seek out—like Top Chef—but if I were pulling over for dinner after a long car trip, I wouldn’t be upset to find it.