LOS ANGELES - More than 2 million viewers watched as Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh were crowned "The Next Food Network Star." Now they're back for their six-week series "Party Line with Dan and Steve."
Smith, whose new show premieres 9:30 a.m. EDT Sept. 18, says all he and McDonagh had to do "was send a videotape to get our foot in the door and be lucky enough to win."
No, Food Network Senior Vice President Bob Tuschman maintains, it was more than luck.
"Dan and Steve really stood out," he notes, adding that there are hundreds of tapes viewed and hundreds of meetings held every year "in an attempt to find one person who we think will be the next star."
Food Network is the latest among niche cable channels that are fishing talent from a pool they've stocked themselves.
ESPN filled three on-air positions with winners from "Dream Job," while SOAPnet cast two aspiring actors on soap operas on sister network ABC. Later this month, MTV follows suit with its 10-episode series "The Reality Show," in which viewers vie for a chance to star in their own reality series.
"It's really an ingenious idea," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. "One of the most desirable things in American life is a job on television. Everybody can understand the appeal of that more so than the appeal of a million dollars. Somebody wins a million bucks on `Survivor,' that doesn't mean anything to viewers. Here you've got a situation (where) somebody really does have a career launch."
Over the years, broadcast networks have had talent-search series from "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour" to "Star Search" to "American Idol." But on cable, talent shows have become a unique opportunity for themed channels to promote their own on-air identity, while manufacturing viable new talent and content for their programming.
"The advantage of being a niche network is that you know exactly who your audience is," says Marc Berman, columnist for MediaWeek, an industry trade magazine. "If you're on the Food Network you know exactly who's watching and what kind of shows they're interested in. It's more difficult for the broadcast networks because they have to focus on a bigger picture. The scope is larger."
Moreover, in today's multiplatform media environment, Berman asserts, it's a win-win for more than one network. "SOAPnet can do their show and the winner can end up on an ABC soap. There's so much cross-pollination that brings them together instead of working apart."
In the case of "I Wanna Be A Soap Star," last year's winner, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, received a 13-week contract on ABC's "General Hospital" as Officer Byron Murphy, which has become a recurring role. This season's champ, Alec Musser, scored his current role as Del Henry on ABC's "All My Children."
"Alec Musser is someone who ABC might not have found if not for our contest," says Deborah Blackwell, general manager of SOAPnet, which will hold a national casting call in November for season three of "I Wanna Be A Soap Star," airing in June 2006. Contestants will vie for a spot on ABC's "One Life To Live."
"Frankly it benefits ABC in that there's already a built-in fan base," says Blackwell. The audience has already been watching him on the reality show and rooting for or against (the winner), but there's already that level of involvement and that's a tremendous benefit to them."
ESPN's "Dream Job" produced three on-air stars: Mike Hall, ESPNU anchor; David Holmes, who hosts "SportsCenter," and former Orlando Magic player Dee Brown, who this spring beat five other former National Basketball Association players for a spot as a studio analyst.
Yet on broadcast TV, "next" stars don't always make it to that next level.
Kimberly Kennedy, winner of 2004's "Wickedly Perfect" on CBS - a search for the next Martha Stewart - is still in series development with syndicator King World. NBC's "The Next Action Star" (2004) and the WB's "The Starlet" (2005) did little in the ratings and even less for their respective victors, Sean Carrigan and Michelynne McGuire.
"`The Next Action Star' and `Starlet' were bad ideas because you can't deliver that," Thompson argues. "Even on `The Apprentice,' you can't turn those people into captains of industry. You can, in fact, say: We're doing a show on the Food Network and whoever wins gets a show on the Food Network. How can we do that? We're the Food Network. These are networks that can do what they promise to do."
And as another serving of "The Next Food Network Star" is prepared for March, Smith and McDonagh are savoring a rich relationship with the channel.
"Food Network really has our back," McDonagh says, "and our success is really important to them."