Steve Ells (from left), Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia and Curtis Stone are the investors and judges on NBC's America's Next Great Restaurant.
Steve Ells (from left), Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia and Curtis Stone are the investors and judges on NBC's America's Next Great Restaurant. NBC
On broadcast television, the February ratings sweeps ended Wednesday. Sweeps periods are when the networks compete aggressively to attract the largest audiences because those are the numbers used to set advertising rates for the next three months.
Now that the February sweeps are over, almost all of the network shows are reruns — and it's also why we're about to face a new onslaught of reality TV shows. Reality shows are a low-cost, low-risk way of rolling the dice and hoping for a sudden hit. And if it doesn't catch on? No big deal: You finish out the cycle and replace it with something else, or replace it immediately if the ratings are that low. But if it hits big, it's a major moneymaker.
But a decade into the current cycle of broadcast TV reality shows, much of the novelty has worn off.
Even the durable programs have to rely on tricks to keep audiences coming back. Donald Trump's The Apprentice series, on NBC, has upped the ante with celebrity editions for a while now — even though its definition of "celebrity" is way too generous.
This Sunday, the newest cycle of Celebrity Apprentice premieres, and the loosest cannon in its arsenal is Gary Busey, whose level of quirkiness has fueled other reality shows in the past. So here he is, misbehaving again, with predictable unpredictability.
And that's the problem with reality TV this year: Even when the programs aren't familiar reruns, the contestants are. On CBS, we have former Survivor contestants Russell and Boston Rob fighting it out on new teams. On the same network's The Amazing Race, we have 16 losing teams from former editions, lining up to try, try again.
Another problem is that even a new show can seem old, because its parts are so familiar. This weekend ABC launches Secret Millionaire, which is an unwatchable rip-off of the nearly as manipulative Undercover Boss on CBS. Is there any broadcast TV reality show with a spark of originality these days?
Yes, there is — and, like Secret Millionaire and Celebrity Apprentice and The Amazing Race, it shows up this Sunday. It's NBC's America's Next Great Restaurant, and it comes from the producers of Bravo's Top Chef.
There are two variations that make this new show stand out. One is that instead of having cooks compete for prizes, or a dream job in a top restaurant — as they do on Top Chef and Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen — this time they compete for investors and the chance to launch a dream business.
That's a familiar idea, too, from such shows as ABC's Shark Tank — but in America's Next Great Restaurant, all the contestants are competing in the same category for the backing to open a chain of three restaurants. They're trying to impress the likes of chefs Bobby Flay and Curtis Stone, and this time, the panel isn't just judging, it's mentoring. In Sunday's premiere, the narrator points out that the "stakes couldn't be any higher."
The stakes, in that context, don't refer to juicy grilled pieces of meat — but those come later, along with casual restaurants built around grilled cheese sandwiches, Indian fusion and meatballs. In the first episode, the judges hear the pitches, taste the food and select the finalists. In Week 2, the contestants are taken to an open-air mall to set up booths and serve one sample item to a crowd of 1,000 people, each of whom has a vote. And judges Flay and Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, offer opinions, too — passing judgment on everything from the food to the logo to even the would-be restaurant's name.
The contestants on America's Next Great Restaurant.
The contestants on America's Next Great Restaurant. NBC
It's the mentoring that makes America's Next Great Restaurant distinctive, and intriguing. The experts here aren't just passing judgment. Every step of the way, they're offering cold, valuable advice — and each step of the way, as one contestant gets eliminated, the visions of the others get more focused, and more impressive.
I suspect that with this show, as with American Idol, a finalist need not win to succeed. After a few weeks of exposure on a show like this, they might find other investors eager to help them make their dreams come true. But for that to happen, America's Next Great Restaurant has to last a few weeks. And most new TV shows, like most new restaurants, fail quickly.
But America's Next Great Restaurant — with a tone that is more positive than negative — is one show I expect will beat the odds. The judges are sincere and likable, the show taps into a common dream and it makes me smile — and at times, it even makes me hungry.
David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com. He teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.