UPDATED: Imagine watching professional football religiously all year long. Then imagine that it’s finally time for the Super Bowl, and, suddenly, whoever is in charge of the NFL announces that some team you forgot even existed is playing, because it won a whole other football season that was happening on the Internet. Ridiculous, right? Well, that’s what’s going on with Top Chef this season.
This week, Bravo.com premiered the first episode of Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen, an online-only series in which two chefs, eliminated from the TV show, compete head-to-head in one final challenge. The winning chef each week goes on to cook against the next eliminated chef; this proceeds until the finale, when the remaining chef will be able to rejoin the competition.
Last Chance Kitchen is fine, on a creative level — it’s a well-paced and professional package that adheres closely to the show’s format (overly dramatic music stings and all). But as a case study in integrating web content into a pre-established series, it’s a potential disaster, largely because of its distribution.
I will not make fun of the fact that the Bravo website, in lieu of embeddable video, is offering a widget to distribute Last Chance Kitchen — because I am kind, and also because the series is thankfully also available on Hulu.
But while super-fans may already be subscribed to Top Chef on Hulu or visiting Bravo.com on a daily basis, for most of the show’s 1.6 million viewers, the only way they’ll remember that Last Chance Kitchen exists is if the show uses precious ad minutes to nag them into going online and watching. As the Los Angeles Times’s John Horn complained, “you have to get up from the TV, start up your laptop and (of all the indignities!) be forced to watch the commercials.”
If Last Chance Kitchen were Hulu Plus and available on phones, tablets or other connected devices, that would be a significant improvement.
Unfortunately, it’s not. UPDATE: Last Chance Kitchen can be seen on mobile and tablet platforms via this link or the Bravo now app.
In fact, Hulu’s note about Bravo programming is one of the more peculiarly-worded ones I’ve seen: “Hulu can offer a select number of full-length episodes from Bravo’s lineup each calendar month. The episodes featured and when they are posted are at Bravo’s discretion.” In short: Don’t blame us. It’s Bravo that’s being stingy.
Last Chance Kitchen also proves problematic when you consider how it changes the competition. Let’s say the winner of this first Last Chance Kitchen (no spoilers) goes on to dominate each subsequent episode — competing against chefs who were eliminated later and are thus, by the logic of the show, better chefs. While winning 12 cook-offs against arguably more talented cooks is an impressive feat, it’s an entirely different experience than the challenges the actual cheftestants will be going through — challenges meant in theory to evaluate each chef’s skill in handling a variety of situations. And so when the winner of Last Chance Kitchen re-enters the competition after not having been on television for potentially weeks, he or she will be altering the narrative of the show.
Top Chef has been nominated for Emmys for its efforts to integrate the web and TV in the past — some of the work they’ve done with online polling and Twitter is groundbreaking. In theory, this is what convergence culture creates: the blurring of lines between television and web to tell a story richer than the sum of its parts. But Last Chance Kitchen may well be a major misstep for the show.
That’s because, when creating an experience on multiple platforms, you either have to make sure that each element can be enjoyed separately with no consequences, or make sure that all elements of the experience are easily accessible. For Last Chance Kitchen, neither of these things is true.