Traditional TV, the kind you watch in your living room, was great for 50 years or so, but now it could use some improvement. There are too many channels to watch. The shows last too long. Most of all, if you're in the midst of a viewing session and you start craving a Big Mac, you're probably at least three or four minutes away from the nearest McDonald's, and maybe as much as a half hour. Is this the best civilization can do?
Clearly the braintrust at Hamburger University doesn't think so. McDonald's is installing two hi-definition flat-screen TVs in the dining areas of 800 of its restaurants in Southern California and they won't be airing NBC, Fox, or even the Food Channel — instead they'll be serving up the McDonald's Channel, an in-house digital network that will consist of programming created especially for the chain by "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett, BBC America, and various other partners.
In 1967, when Super Bowl I aired simultaneously on NBC and CBS, McDonald's was the only sponsor canny and/or thorough enough to buy spots on both broadcasts. It was, according to a 1967 New York Times report, also "the only business of its kind with network commercials on the Saturday morning kiddie cartoon marathon." At the time, it still had fewer than 1,000 outlets — but it understood that the fastest way to achieve ubiquity in the physical landscape of America was to first achieve it on TV.
TV ain't what it used to be, though, at least from an advertiser's perspective. Thanks to remote controls, DVRs, Netflix, the Internet, and various other liberating forces, viewers have too many choices, too much power. In the good old days, you could make 20 million pairs of eyeballs watch every second of your commercial in one fell swoop. Now … well, you still can, sort of. But not in living rooms. Now, you need what's known as a location-based network or digital-out-of-home — a network of screens installed in places where people are typically so under-engaged they might watch TV for a few moments even if they can't control what they're watching. Gas-station pumps, elevators, laundromats and taxicabs are all ideal places for location-based networks, and so, of course, are restaurants. We love to eat, we love to watch, but what we really love to do is eat and watch — why, one wonders, didn't McDonald's install TVs decades ago, along with its first milkshake mixers? McDonald's and TV go together like mechanically processed chicken parts and chemically flavorized dipping sauces!
But now that McDonald's is embracing TV — and producing its own proprietary programming no less — can it do for the medium what the Big Mac did for hamburgers, or what McNuggets did for fried chicken? McDonald's fortes are taste and convenience. The Big Mac took a regular burger and gave the leads — the meat and the bun — even bigger parts to play, but it also featured a full cast of sharply drawn minor characters — the sour pickle, the pliant cheese, the mysterious special sauce. The McNugget took fried chicken and eliminated the bones, the gristly skin, everything, really, except one nugget of deep-fried, poultry-like deliciousness.
The McDonald's Channel should be nothing but beautifully choreographed car chases and murders, two-out homeruns, Snookie in tears, the Situation head-butting a brick wall, new iterations of Sam and Diane and Ross and Rachel hooking up after years of verbal foreplay, and then, every five minutes or so, a heartwarming commercial for McRibs showing a dad and his tots bonding in ways no vegetarian clan will ever experience. It should, in short, be YouTube without the rambling, attention-starved teenagers, YouTube as curated by ruthlessly efficient marketing savants hell-bent on cramming every morsel of televisual entertainment with maximum crispiness, heat retention and fresh-food cues.
Instead, it appears to be planning to produce infotainment. According to The LA Times, it will feature reports on new movies and TV shows, along with profiles of local high school and college athletes and news-like fare on "fashion, art, music, night life, lifestyle and culture." With the exception of the weirdly focused "Mighty Moms," which promises to highlight "local moms juggling home life with careers in sports such as coaching or training," it all sounds like standard televisual oatmeal, blander than bland, with no moist-but-crunchy mouthfeel and highly craveable flavor profile. Media nutritionists everywhere, breathe a sigh of relief. Without a little more special sauce, this is one McDonald's menu item most patrons will have little interest in supersizing.