Brands Eat At Rocco's

'The Restaurant' lenses for NBC bow

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%%STORYIMAGE_RIGHT%% Even though NBC's new reality show, "The Restaurant," is still weeks away from its July 20 debut, it has garnered more attention than your garden variety piece of original summer programming—much of it as a result of its innovative financing model.

In return for waiving the license feel normally paid by the network, Magna Global Entertainment takes a significant equity position in the property as well as a healthy portion of the ad inventory while its advertiser clients—American Express, Coors Brewing Co. and Mitsubishi—get exclusivity and integration.

"The Restaurant" follows 36-year-old celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito as he strives to launch his new upscale Italian eatery in a breakneck six weeks, rather than the standard six to nine months. "Survivor" creator Mark Burnett was hired by co-producers, Reveille CEO Ben Silverman and Magna Global Entertainment's Exec-VP and Director Robert Riesenberg, to shape a frothy narrative from the enveloping chaos.

More than 2,000 people auditioned/interviewed, according to Riesenberg. "Opening a restaurant is like opening a Broadway show every night of the week…It provides a great platform for drama," Riesenberg says.

So what did the brands actually receive for all their trouble?

Inside Rocco's, Coors has a Killian's Irish Red tap at the bar. A Coors Light clock and a neon Coors sign adorn the kitchen. The brewer will also run a New York area radio promotion where winners receive free dinners at what promoters hope will be Manhattan's newest hot spot. Coors even got to cast a real beer delivery person, and the voluptuous Coors Twins, featured in Coors advertising, showed up at the June 2 opening and will appear in the show's second episode.

As for Mitsubishi, the formerly car-less DiSpirito, with his matinee idol looks, is shown tooling around Gotham in a new Endeavor that will be given away in a promotion. At times during filming of the six-episode show, it was parked in front of the restaurant, located in the Gramercy Park area of Manhattan. In addition, Mitsubishi supplied 2003 model Monteros to cart around celebrities and the production team.

"We're constantly looking for new, alternative media ways to reach out to" small business owners, says Kerry Hatch, exec-VP and general manager for Open, Amex's small-business unit, breaking a new ad campaign starring DiSpirito that includes three 30-second TV spots and national radio. Ogilvy & Mather, New York, created the campaign.

Hatch isn't certain what AMEX-integrated footage would air—those creative choices would seem to be entirely up to Burnett—but footage was shot where DiSpirito, an Open member for over three years, is seen using Amex and Open. For example, on opening night, the quail had not arrived, so DiSpirito handed his Amex card to a colleague, who bought the birds from a local supermarket. "We tried to demonstrate the breadth of our network…[as in] 'here's a small business that opened. Here are all the ways that we can help them succeed.'"

Burnett focuses on eight or so recurring characters—waitstaff, patrons, and delivery people—and tries to take maximum advantage of the telegenic DiSpirito and his knockout Italian girlfriend and his endearing Italian mother. Rocco's mom spends her days making meatballs and nights hugging patrons.

%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% Filming started in February and wrapped June 16. DiSpirito, who's only seen a few clips, described it as having a "Law & Order" feel. The restaurant was rigged with hidden cameras as well as 100 crewmembers conspicuously circulating with shoulder-held cameras and boom mikes throughout the dining area, the kitchen and outside of the restaurant. Everything from cash register transactions, romances, firings and other intrigue were documented.

While many people played to the cameras, many participants affected the standard New York pose of jaded indifference.

It is now up to Burnett and his crew to make as much sense of these dynamics as possible.

"There's no question. If you make it through the first 12 minutes, you'll watch the whole thing," predicts DiSpirito, who had his hands full opening night, extinguishing three fires and being sued by another restaurant called Rocco's, earlier that day.

DiSpirito, who started his TV career four years ago on the Food Network's "Melting Pot," says that while "The Restaurant" cameras were intrusive and he grew tired of being "on" all the time, he got used to it.

"The medium of TV for chefs is a great marketing vehicle—it's a necessary evil," he says.

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