McDonald’s, fast food giant known the world over for its Big Macs and fries, is now launching a surprising new element to their fast food experience at certain West Coast locations: McDonald’s Channel. According to The Los Angeles Times, this in-store television network will feature content from BBC America and Mark Burnett (the man responsible for “Survivor” and “The Apprentice”), among others. While certainly innovative for a fast food chain, one has to ask about this latest development: do we really need families glued to the tube while they are downing McD’s?
The McDonald’s Channel is apparently not all shameless self-promotion – instead of just heavy commercial content, the network will feature stories about local high school sports heroes, and other human interest stories. So McDonald’s is clearly trying to communicate that it is a global corporation with local interests in mind. But if McD’s really wants to promote community, why is it distracting its customers from conversation with one another, from the kind of social interaction that eating-out (even if it just hamburgers) is supposed to be about?
McDonald’s has long been trying to update its image, from offering healthier foods such as salads and yogurt parfaits, to jumping on the espresso bandwagon with McCafé. This newest “upgrade” might appeal to some of the restaurant chain’s demographics because of the glitz factor, but it doesn’t do much to support the more progressive image the half-century old burger giant has been attempting to cultivate for some while. What’s more, this move seems to further the trend of intrusive and ever-present media in people’s lives – the two digital screens in each restaurant are designed to reach 70% of the customers in the store. Apparently, you can escape in a designated quiet area – but why should customers feel like they need to escape? If McDonald’s truly wants to differentiate itself from other chains, it should be moving away from the constant barrage of branded content that is becoming the norm.
The founder of ChannelPort, the company that is producing the McDonald’s TV network, made the following statement: “The intention is to catch and engage the customer, and then enhance their experience. The McDonald’s customer is everyone, and we want not to be passive viewers but to be active and participatory with this network.” Personally, I find this pill hard to swallow. TV might keep customers in the store longer, and it might even attract some customers. But ultimately, it doesn’t do much to placate McCriticisms about the impact of fast food culture on children and families. When I was growing up, at least there were the play centers to keep kids physically active after they had their Happy Meal. Now, McD’s is essentially telling kids that eating in front of the TV is a good thing. If TV is considered a way to keep customers more engaged, then it is time to reassess the McDonald’s restaurant experience.
Fast food has a rocky reputation. With the obesity crisis, skyrocketing diabetes rates and other health crises plaguing the nation, it is increasingly difficult for quick service chains to win the PR war. That doesn’t mean that McDonald’s is going anywhere anytime soon, but the chain has already lost its global first-place position to competitor Subway, in part because of the perceived healthiness of the latter. If McD’s wants to be top dog again, McTV is not the way to go.