LOS ANGELES -- The question of the moment at 700 pioneering McDonald's restaurants: You want TV with those fries?
Notjust any television, but the custom-made M Channel, formulated andtested with the same attention to detail that made Big Macs and ChickenMcNuggets cultural icons.
The channel's aim isto offer exclusive content to entertain customers. More ambitiously, italso intends to create promotional and sales opportunities for recordcompanies and others who want to dive into McDonald's vast customerpool.
Lee Edmondson, who has spent more thaneight years developing the concept for McDonald's and years beforehandpondering it, said the fast-food chain is thinking way outside the TVbox.
"It is a vision that is more thantelevision," more than the "passive relationship" that viewers have withgas station or supermarket TV feeds, said Edmondson, who comes from aventure-capital background.
The M channel isakin to a broadcast network with its own news, entertainment andsportscasts localized for cities and even neighborhoods, he said. Butthere's more: It will supersize the experience by directing viewersonline for shopping or other opportunities.
Getdetails on a featured electronic toy or be among the first to download amusic video discovered via M Channel. Want to get close to artists youheard on your coffee break? Enter to win backstage concert passes ormaybe lunch with them (just a guess, but the location may not beoptional).
M Channel's goal is to targetdifferent audiences at different times of day and be so area-specificthat a restaurant could show high school football game highlights tohometown fans, Edmondson said. News reports are taped by local stationanchors for the channel.
Among those who haveenlisted as content providers are producer Mark Burnett ("Survivor,"''The Voice"), ReelzChannel and broadcast stations. A range ofadvertisers, minus other restaurants and perhaps alcoholic beverages,will be welcome, Edmondson said.
For now, theprogramming is in its infancy. At a McDonald's in Costa Mesa, south ofLos Angeles, a flat-screen TV tucked in a corner showed an hour-longloop that included weather; a trivia quiz that promoted "Jeopardy!";features on windsurfing in Maui and auto racing, and a Hollywood moviereport packaged by ReelzChannel.
A momgrabbing a meal with her two children briefly glanced at a tech segmenton back-to-school products including computers and smartphones beforeexiting.
Other diners sitting close to the TVwere buried in their laptops, phones or magazines, the screen showingthe distinctive arched "M'' logo merely providing wallpaper.
RubyLua of Santa Ana, who works at a nearby supermarket, took a break fromtexting to say she preferred the satellite feed the restaurant used toshow. How about if the channel offered music and related downloads?
"That would be more interesting," said the 18-year-old Lua, perking up.
That opening is just what Edmondson wants to exploit.
"Ifyou see a piece of content that connects with you immediately, we'veprovided you a value," he said. "If we can do it consistently, we becomea trusted source of information ... and a great way for contentproviders to engage with consumers."
Major music companies are intrigued.
"Interscopevalues a new way of communicating to customers where our content ispositioned front and center to a massive audience," said JenniferFrommer, the company's head of brand partnerships. "The channel providesa platform to market music in ways that have never been done before."
Thepilot project, which began testing in scattered Western outlets twoyears ago, recently completed expansion to all McDonald's Californiaoutlets from San Diego north to Bakersfield. All told, the eateries getnearly 15 million monthly visits from adult customers alone.
MChannel could expand to the roughly 14,000 McDonald's nationwide within18 months of getting the "go" from the company and franchisees,Edmondson said. He declined to predict when the green light could comefor the project that has advanced with caution, the giant chain'sapproach to making changes.
The end gameEdmondson foresees: Versions of the channel in McDonald's worldwide, andperhaps the birth of a template for other industries. So far, theinvestor-funded Channel M has consumed tens of millions of dollars andit "will be that again to pull it off," he said, declining to give anexact figure.
The M channel is "a smart thingto do," said Valerie Folkes, a marketing professor at the University ofSouthern California's Marshall School of Business.
TVsets, which originally sprouted in auto service shops and elsewhere tokeep customers distracted while cooling their heels, have new potentialin a splintered media market.
"Advertisersface difficulties not only in reaching the right people but also incapturing their attention," Folkes said. "Here they have people who theyknow are customers and who are more inclined to listen to theirmessage."
How will McDonald's Corp. judge M Channel's value?
"Adrevenues are important, but the channel must be positively received byour customers in order to be viewed as a success," said Brad Hunter,senior marketing director for McDonald's USA.
PhilipPalumbo, who owns 11 McDonald's in San Diego County and is themarketing co-op head for the county's outlets, has seen an immediatebenefit from the pilot project: No more complaints to workers about thenetwork fare his customers saw via satellite.
"Thecontent was not necessarily appropriate," Palumbo said. "The big thingswere politics. Others were violence, usually on the news, or medicalstuff like showing surgery."
As Folkes of USCput it, "You can imagine a news story about 'pink slime' is not going tomake a McDonald's customer eager to eat that Big Mac."