Small Business

Restaurant Reviews Hunger for the Web


A hit on public TV, Chicago's Check, Please! sees the Net as a bigger market for its popular videos

Check, Please! has become a foodie's favorite in its seven years on public TV. But the Emmy Award-winning show, which features a trio of ordinary people dishing about local restaurants, isn't doing much for its founder and chief executive, David Manilow. Indeed, with less than $200,000 in annual revenue from fees, the program generates only a tenth of what an average McDonald's (MCD) pulls in.

So Manilow is hitching his star to a medium with richer promise: the Internet. While continuing to produce Check, Please! for WTTW, where it airs three times a week, Manilow and President Tim Bahr are trying to drum up $2.5 million to develop checkplease.tv. Their first-year aim is to put together short video reviews of restaurants in the nation's top 10 travel markets, which would be posted on their own site and the likes of Travelocity.com. Income would come from ads. So far, they and friends have chipped in more than $500,000. Heartland Angels, a local group of individual investors, is also raising money for the venture.

Manilow found a void when Check, Please! began its "everyman" critiques on television. But the Internet already abounds with entertainment sites, such as Metromix and Citysearch, that are packed with ratings and write-ups by diners, plus menus, directions, links—and ads. Will snappy videos of folks eating a few dishes be enough to make checkplease.tv stand out? Some doubt it. "It's hard to build an online community, and it's hard to monetize," says Jane Goldman, editor-in-chief of chow.com, a popular food site that itself is experimenting with video.

Manilow, 48, and Bahr, 51, say success hinges largely on being first. A beta version of the site, up since last November, is stocked with more than 200 searchable video reviews of Chicago-area restaurants, mostly clipped from earlier broadcasts. Each video is as slickly produced as a commercial. Crain's Chicago Business has purchased spots for its Web site, while WMAQ is airing the minireviews during its 6 p.m. newscasts. Talks are under way with Comcast (CMCSA) for a local Check, Please! channel, Bahr says.

No Experts, Thank You

As on the TV show, the online critics are nonprofessionals who have volunteered to go on camera to talk up their faves. And like other sites, visitors can build profiles and add feedback. "It's very democratic," says Manilow, a former ABC (DIS) sports producer and son of Chicago real estate developer and arts patron Lewis Manilow.

David Manilow and Bahr were partners in Orbis Broadcast Group, a prominent Chicago video-production company that was bought out in 1998. About a year ago, Bahr approached Manilow with the idea of doing Check, Please! on the Net. "I saw the TV show's production format fitting very well with major trends in media—the move away from consumer reliance on experts and professional reviewers to getting information from real people," says Bahr, who also created a multimillion-dollar broadcast video and online business for PR Newswire.

Manilow and Bahr are not giving up on PBS programs. After licensing the concept to public television's KQED in San Francisco in 2005, they begat a second show in January, in Miami. They're now in talks for spin-offs in both Seattle and Kansas City, Mo., later this year.

But unlike, say, Zagat Survey, the brand has no recognition outside these markets. "That is definitely a concern," says Bert Cohen, marketing director for a small natural-foods company and a would-be investor. But he adds: "I think their brand is differentiated enough."

Deborah L. Cohen is a contributor to BW Chicago.

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