The question of the moment at 700 pioneering McDonald's restaurants: You want TV with those fries? • Not just any television, but the custom-made M Channel, formulated and tested with the same attention to detail that made Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets cultural icons.
The channel's aim is to offer exclusive content to entertain customers. More ambitiously, it also intends to create promotional and sales opportunities for record companies and others who want to dive into McDonald's vast customer pool.
Lee Edmondson, who has spent more than eight years developing the concept for McDonald's and years beforehand pondering it, said the fast-food chain is thinking way outside the TV box.
"It is a vision that is more than television," more than the "passive relationship" that viewers have with gas station or supermarket TV feeds, said Edmondson, who comes from a venture capital background.
The M Channel is akin to a broadcast network with its own news, entertainment and sportscasts localized for cities and even neighborhoods, he said. But there's more: It will supersize the experience by directing viewers online for shopping or other opportunities.
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M Channel's goal is to target different audiences at different times of day and be so area-specific that a restaurant could show high school football game highlights to hometown fans, Edmondson said. News reports are taped by local station anchors for the channel.
Among those who have enlisted as content providers are producer Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Voice), ReelzChannel and broadcast stations. A range of advertisers, minus other restaurants and perhaps alcoholic beverage companies, will be welcome, Edmondson said.
For now, the programming is in its infancy.
At a McDonald's in Costa Mesa, Calif., south of Los Angeles, a flat-screen TV tucked in a corner showed an hourlong loop that included weather; a trivia quiz that promoted Jeopardy; features on windsurfing in Maui and auto racing; and a Hollywood movie report packaged by ReelzChannel.
A mom grabbing a meal with her two children briefly glanced at a tech segment on back-to-school products including computers and smartphones before exiting.
Major music companies are intrigued.
"Interscope values a new way of communicating to customers where our content is positioned front and center to a massive audience," said Jennifer Frommer, the company's head of brand partnerships. "The channel provides a platform to market music in ways that have never been done before."
The pilot project, which began testing in scattered Western outlets two years ago, recently completed expansion to all McDonald's California outlets from San Diego north to Bakersfield.
M Channel could expand to the roughly 14,000 McDonald's nationwide within 18 months of getting the "go" from the company and franchisees, Edmondson said.
How will McDonald's judge M Channel's value?
"Ad revenues are important, but the channel must be positively received by our customers in order to be viewed as a success," said Brad Hunter, senior marketing director for McDonald's USA.