Unsurprisingly, half of the immense ballroom filled up an hour prior to Tom Colicchio’s arrival, mostly excited housewives, single gals and gay dudes. By the time the panelists took the stage, the room was completely packed with hooting reality show addicts.
Joining a jovial Colicchio on stage was the always effervescent Andy Cohen, Executive VP of Development and Talent; Dave Serwatka, VP of Current & Cross Platform Productions, who supposedly “knows where all the Top Chef bodies are buried”; Aimee Viles, VP of Emerging Media; and the very busy Lisa Hsia, VP of Digital Design.
The official topic of the panel was Bravo’s use of storytelling across multiple platforms, or “transmedia.” To the delight of everyone attended, however, the conversation wandered everywhere from this year’s Last Chance Kitchen to the Bravo Housewives to Padma Lakshmi's extracurricular activities. (Someone even proposed making a drinking game out of the panel, as Cohen regularly does each night on his late night show, Watch What Happens Live.)
This season, Bravo launched a more ambitious approach to programming Top Chef than ever before, with the creation of the web series Last Chance Kitchen along with a prolonged fan favorite contest and social media engagement with viewers. The new web series allowed viewers to rally behind their favorite chefs that may have been kicked off too soon.
According to Hsia, the decision to implement Last Chance Kitchen came out of a need to make fresh new content with an impact, “not just the leftovers that weren’t seen on screen.”
For Colicchio, Last Chance Kitchen was important because of the new opportunity it gave for great chefs to redeem themselves if they happened to have a single bad day. (It may surprise you too that the judges have no idea about the drama happening the rest of the show and really do just judge contestants on the food put in front of them each day.)
“The Twitter reaction was huge following the eliminations each episode,” shared Viles. “When Nyesha got eliminated a second time on Last Chance Kitchen, it was like our Kanye West moment of the season. People were really voting for Nyesha, and then the support swung went to underdog Bev once she came back on the show.”
“When Nyesha got eliminated, I got a real earful from people on Twitter,” laughs Colicchio. “People were really mad at me for some reason!”
Hsia points out the necessity of allowing these outbursts of fan frustration as fans express their overwhelming support of the chefs they learn to love on the show. “It was imperative to have fans interact over all of the platforms.” Her motto: “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” (Not as dirty as it sounds once you know the context.)
Far from disappointing, Hsia reports the Bravo team was hoping for maybe a million live streams by the end of the season. Instead, the team ended up with more than eight million streams; a record for any show on any NBC affiliate network. According to their analytics, 26% of the on-air watching audience watched Last Chance Kitchen.
With the success of this year's accidental goldmine, the Bravo team is excitedly planning how to top this year's success and translate their transmedia success to their other franchises like the Real Housewives. Hsia reveals there's a Real Housewives of New York social game already in the works that will allow the fans to vote for and keep track of their favorite housewives in real time.
As for how Bravo can possibly make Top Chef bigger and better than the grandiose season of "everything is bigger in Texas" that just wrapped up, Serwatka and his crew are examining every possibility. "I'm not sure we have to go to the extremes we went to making Last Chance Kitchen," he says. "But we have some very exciting plans in the works."
A few audience members expressed concerns over next season's chefs now knowing about the "ruined surprise" of the Last Chance Kitchen. To Colicchio, however, the knowledge of a potential redemption opportunity will hopefully make the chef-testants take more risks and raise the stakes even further in their regular challenges.
After a spirited discussion from a justifiably proud team of badass trailblazers, it's easy to see also that inspiration comes from following through with tiny sparks that catch and keep building into roaring bonfires. And the swell of audience engagement this past season proved that the fire isn't going out any time soon.