'American Idol’ Has Nothing on Cable Reality

The final votes are in, and American Idol is once again the No. 1 interactive-television show in America. The incredible performance of the show’s finale last week — in which more than 63 million people text-messaged Taylor Hicks to the title of America’s favorite amateur pop tart — is a testament to consumers’ devotion to a show for which they can literally script the ending.

While cable has its own American Idol-type reality shows such as USA Network’s Nashville Star, some cable networks are hoping to take the power of that viewer loyalty and passion to the next level.

Instead of viewers choosing which performer will get a shiny new record deal, a la American Idol, networks like Food Network will give television watchers the ability to actually shape the look and feel of their original content. Ultimately it’s a baby step toward giving the viewer the keys to the network’s production studio.

Unlike the countdown shows from Black Entertainment Television, MTV: Music Television and Fuse that allow viewers to vote to see the latest Beyoncé music video, viewer participation-oriented shows like The Travel Channel’s 5Takes — in which viewers help influence the stories and images aired on the travel show via weekly e-mail interactions with the show’s “Travel Journalists” — and Mision: Reportar, which gives viewers a chance to choose Spanish-language network Galavision’s next on-air news star, truly involve consumers in the network’s content-development process.

Instead of networks doling out thousands of dollars to focus groups to tell them whether this blond and blue-eyed model or that loud, rotund comedian would appeal to its audience, they are giving viewers the chance to choose a new on-air personality — one that is already embraced by virtue of their cell phone/Internet votes.

With shows like Next Food Star — in which viewers vote for the next Emeril to host a new Food Network show — the viewer gets a payoff by seeing the ordinary Joe that they invested time and effort to get to know, and ultimately vote for, sauté shrimp on their favorite network.

The networks benefit because viewers already roped into the original competition series will have an emotional interest in seeing their chosen one succeed in a show all their own.

The concept has certainly benefited Food. The April 23 finale of The Next Food Network Star set an all-time ratings record, drawing more than 2.5 million viewers. Further, more than 675,000 people voted for the eventual winner, Guy Fieri, whose new series, Guy’s Big Bite, debuts June 25.

Meanwhile, the network has already renewed Party Line With the Hearty Boys — the show created for last season’s Next Food’s winners, Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh — after the show blew away network performance expectations, according to Food Network vice president of programming Bruce Seidel.

The TV industry is still a long way off from allowing viewers to become the next Steve McPherson and green-light shows to air on cable networks. But cable programming executives would be foolish to think that they can continue to arbitrarily decide what content most viewers — particularly distracted 18-to-34-year-olds — will be willing to sit still and watch without at least giving them access to and participation in the decision-making process.

Consumers are already making their viewing choices known in large numbers on very popular Internet sites such as youtube.com and myspace.com, as well as on cable services such as Current TV.

We’re smack in the middle of a new digital age where VOD, the iPod, TiVo and broadband video are giving consumers more control over how they utilize media. Viewers are already beginning to vote for more input into the development of the content, including the personalities, that they’re watching. The winner will ultimately be the technology that best delivers what and who viewers truly want to see.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.