By David Gumpert
Major corporations lust after the small-business market, and for good reason. Depending on which statistics you believe, there are anywhere from 12 million to 25 million small businesses in the U.S., and they all need retirement accounts, credit cards, accounting services, stationery, and on and on.
Unfortunately for corporations, trying to corral small business owners is a bit like trying to herd cats. Business owners are an independent breed, and tend not to be easy to generalize about or to reach via television or advertising. So corporations try all kinds of alternative approaches, like setting up special Web sites and sponsoring Entrepreneur of the Year awards or business-plan contests.
Most recently, three major corporations cooperated on a new tack -- producing a television show, The Restaurant (on NBC, Sundays, 10 p.m. in the East). Billed as "the ultimate reality show," The Restaurant is a six-part series (ending Aug. 24) that has taken viewers behind the scenes for the launch of chef Rocco DiSpirito's restaurant, Rocco's, in Lower Manhattan.
TOO MANY COOKS.
Conceptually such a show makes a lot of sense because it's very difficult for the many individuals considering starting a restaurant to truly appreciate the difficulties, and television is a wonderful medium for communicating key challenges. If people truly understood how difficult it is to launch a business, there would probably be fewer failures because of poor idea assessment.
So how does the show come off? Unfortunately, like too much of television, it provides a skewed view of life -- and the fact that you have three major corporations calling the shots is a major reason.
On the positive side, it is excellent entertainment and drama -- the chaos of opening night, the wait for a local newspaper's review (and its complaint about food being "piping cold"), the decision about whether to fire an eager young worker. In demonstrating the endless frustrations that go with opening a restaurant, the show is an interesting education. Where it does best is in showing the difficulties associated with hiring, training, and supervising the kitchen staff and waiters.
FINGERS IN THE SOUP.
Unfortunately, The Restaurant has a credibility problem. It is sponsored by American Express (AXP ), Coors (RKY ), and Mitsubishi (MHVYF ). They don't just advertise before and during the show, but insert themselves into the action. Viewers are treated to shots of diners at Rocco's using their American Express cards to charge meals, of bartenders serving up glasses of Coors, and of Rocco driving around in a brand new Mitsubishi SUV.
What's wrong with a little promo? The problem is that the promos interfere with key educational matters associated with starting and running a business. The role of American Express prevents viewers from gaining any insight into the dilemma that confronts restaurants and other retailers about whether to accept American Express, which charges higher merchant fees than Visa and Master Charge.
The presence of Coors hides from viewers the dilemmas associated with selecting and dealing with vendors. Viewers get no insight into the often tense negotiations and deal-making that goes on between manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, and determines the range of selection available in many restaurants and stores. Finally, the sight of Rocco, the embattled startup entrepreneur, driving around in a brand new SUV is a bit disconcerting. Why is he spending so much money on a new car at a time when he's presumably investing everything he has into the restaurant? But wait, he probably didn't have to buy the SUV, did he?
These conflicts of interest aren't just isolated matters. I found myself wondering why Rocco felt so compelled to rush into opening his restaurant weeks before he was really ready. The premature opening helped create the chaos that made for much of the show's entertainment. And according to Rocco's American Express-sponsored Web site, it has helped make daily life and business at the restaurant a real, hectic handful.
If Rocco had his druthers, my bet is that he likely would have waited until proper preparations were completed before opening his doors. After all, as an experienced chef, he must have known that poor reviews generated by a rushed opening could prove fatal. But viewers are left to surmise that he likely opened early to accommodate television producers. At the end, the heavy-handed corporate involvement seems as much a missed opportunity to educate as it is engaging entertainment. I suspect the three corporate sponsors haven't scored as many points as they might have with small-business owners.