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SXSW Watch: The Transmedia of Top Chef

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One of the TV buzzwords I’ve been hearing this year at South by Southwest is “transmedia.” Which, you may be surprised to find, is not a reference to RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s the new term of art for using various other media platforms to create entertainment associated with a show, and one of the more aggressive networks at it has been Bravo. So Saturday morning the network filled a massive ballroom to talk about how it extended Top Chef online this season with Last Chance Kitchen.

In the online webisodes, each week the contestant eliminated from the cooking competition would compete with another ejected chef for the chance to eventually re-enter the cookout on TV. (Unbeknownst to the rest of the chefs still competing.)

The panel, moderated by Andy Cohen, host of Bravo’s Watch What Happens: Live, said that what distinguished Last Chance from many other “let’s put something online” efforts was a philosophy fitting for a cooking show: avoiding leftovers. That is, rather than just slap up out takes on a web site, the competition had an actual role in the larger season.

What’s more, said Tom Colicchio, who judged Last Chance Kitchen, the web series had a practical function: addressing the problem of what to do with strong chefs who got eliminated because they had one bad week. Because the webisodes had stakes, he said, fans were engaged in them, and it showed; some of the highest ratings of the Top Chef: Austin season came when the show revealed Beverly as the chef who got to return.

The presentation also went into Bravo’s other social-engagement efforts–awarding points for online activity, &c–though it made a less persuasive case that these demonstrably boost viewership (as opposed to keeping the most intense fans happier).
As for online engagement in the other direction, Colicchio demurred when an audience member asked if he read online blogs about the show, such as Gawker’s, which the questioner said had snarked that Padma always appears high on camera. “She’s been nursing the past two years, so she’s not smoking these days,” Colicchio said. (Or before that for all he knows, he added after realizing the implications of his wording.)
Regardless of the focus of the panel, the majority of the questions from Twitter and the crowd had more to do with the actual TV show than its online offshoots. (No, they’re not saying yet where the next season will be shot.) Even among this digitally engaged crowd, the trans- may be cool, but it still takes a back seat to the -media.