Plenty of Burgers in 'Fast Food Mania,' But Not in Ad Breaks

New Destination America Show Won't Be on Restaurants' Ad Menu

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A series about the nation's overabundant fast-food restaurant chains is giving a soon-to-launch Discovery Communications network something to chew on.

Jon Hein, host of Fast Food Mania, sits at a table with a chicken sandwich at the Harland Sanders Museum and Cafe in Corbin, KY.
Jon Hein, host of Fast Food Mania, sits at a table with a chicken sandwich at the Harland Sanders Museum and Cafe in Corbin, KY. Credit: Destination America

Burgers, fries and shakes are the stars of "Fast Food Mania," a travelogue program on Destination America cable network, which makes its debut May 28 (with the first episode slated for June 3). But they aren't the focus of the ads that will accompany the show.

No fast-food or quick-service restaurant chain will advertise in the program, fearful of having the effectiveness of any advertising damped by the show's focus on a rival in any of its segments. The debut episode, for example, spotlights White Castle, Whataburger and Chick-fil-A. McDonalds, Burger King and KFC might feel their ads would resonate better in a program that didn't bring up other dining choices alongside their commercials.

"The show itself, without a doubt, is something that fast-food clients are very excited about," said James Levitt, VP-national sales manager of the Discovery Communications-owned network, which is replacing cable's Planet Green network. "But in terms of participating in the show itself, that is not what excites them the most."

Jon Hein talks with diners about their love of fast food.
Jon Hein talks with diners about their love of fast food. Credit: Destination America/Jonathan Robert Willis

Initially, Mr. Levitt and his colleagues had assumed burger barons, pizza purveyors and chicken champions in the U.S. would be natural supporters of "Fast Food Mania," a program in which host Jon Hein visits intriguing outlets, learns their business origins and samples their cuisine -- everything from waffle fries to sliders to chicken sandwiches.

Instead, Discovery found it had a unique sort of show on its hands. Every once in a while, a TV network launches a program that is so focused on a particular business or product that others in the sector want nothing to do with it. Take "Cavemen," a program based on the popular Geico ad characters that launched on ABC in the fall of 2007. Rival insurers such as Aflac deliberately avoided it, as it constantly reminded viewers of Geico. More infuriating still for the Walt Disney TV outlet? Even Geico wasn't sure it wanted to advertise, since it had little input into the characters, plot and dialogue.

It's not as if "Fast Food Mania" won't depict a broad array of subjects. Among the chains up for a profile this season are Sonic, Dunkin' Donuts, Dominos, Taco Bell and the original Nathan's Famous hot dog stand. The show will also pay a visit to new and emerging chains, such as Jet BBQ in Wichita, Kan.

Even so, the appearance of one chain is enough to send others running for separate ad space, even though they are supporting the new outlet. Mr. Levitt said quick-service chains were indeed booking ads elsewhere on the Destination America schedule. "This is the audience they want to be driven to," he said, while noting, "I have to secure them in the appropriate environment."

In place of fast-food eateries, "Fast Food Mania" will sport ads from other businesses that have contact with Baconators, Whoppers, original recipe fried-chicken, Cheesy Bites Pizza and Quarter Pounders. Marketers of both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages will support the program, Mr. Levitt said, as will producers of paper products such as napkins and wipes. Pharmaceutical concerns that produce remedies for stomach upset may also have ads appear during the program, he added.

Getting Destination America up and running is part of Discovery Communications' plan to build out a series of new cable networks. The company recently launched "Velocity," a male-skewing outlet and is , of course, getting tons of scrutiny for its OWN joint venture with Oprah Winfrey.

Other programs on the Destination America menu haven't proved as tough for certain sponsors to digest. A new season of "BBQ Pitmasters," a series that once called sister network TLC its home, will run on Destination America with Clorox Co.'s Kingsford charcoal as a significant sponsor.

When it comes to "Fast Food Mania," however, viewers will find more food to digest in its program segments than they will in its ad breaks.

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