A 'Top Chef' Cruise? A 'Duck Dynasty' Barcalounger? How Reality TV Is Cashing In

"Top Chef" cruise

Unscripted programs are finding novel ways to build more recognition and revenue in arenas once reserved for cartoons, scripted hits and celebrities.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If you want viewers to really experience your brand, put them on a boat for four days. That's what Top Chef did in April when it sent a Celebrity cruise ship filled with 1,950 fans (each of whom shelled out between $749 and $5,999 for the experience) and 14 former contestants (and one THR reporter) drifting through the Caribbean. A first for Bravo's Emmy-winning culinary competition -- which began its 11th season Oct. 2 -- the event quickly sold out thanks to the promise of cooking lessons, autograph signings and catering from the celebrity chefs.

"We always felt like there was more that could be done with Top Chef," says executive producer Dan Cutforth, who, with Magical Elves partner Jane Lipsitz, brought the idea for the cruise to WME, where it was packaged and pitched to the network. "The brand has really come to mean something with foodies."

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It's just one example of reality TV's increasingly lucrative brand tie-ins, an arena once reserved for cartoons, scripted hits and breakout personalities like Bethenny Frankel and the Kardashian family. The Robertson family of A&E's Duck Dynasty now is prepping a weekend at sea of its own, and a Dancing With the Stars cruise leaves Miami for seven days in January.

For Top Chef, the maiden voyage -- which featured fans running laps with All-Stars winner Richard Blais, dancing until 2 a.m. to the beats of DJ (and Top Chef Master) Hubert Keller and watching live showdowns modeled after the series' Quickfire challenges -- is just the tip of a branding behemoth. Bravo is cashing in on the show's culinary cachet by licensing the Top Chef name, and reaping most of the financial benefits, with a line of cutlery, a wine label and a collection of frozen meals. Most of those partnerships sprung out of deals with the series' advertisers, Healthy Choice among them.

"We always hesitate because we get a lot of interest in using Top Chef, and our only anxiety is around quality control," says Bravo and Oxygen Media president Frances Berwick. "With the frozen meals, we hired a food consultant and did numerous tastings in the office. We're not necessarily experts, but we know what tastes good and what fits with the brand."

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The addition of the Top Chef entrees helped grow sales for food giant ConAgra when the Healthy Choice line launched nearly two years ago, but the show's retail footprint is dwarfed by Duck Dynasty's growing empire.

Shut out of the Robertsons' pre-existing Duck Commander brand of duck calls and hunting gear that made them millionaires, A&E was eager to cash in on the series' formidable name recognition. (Cable's second-biggest series next to The Walking Dead, it returned in August to 11.8 million viewers.)

A&E worked out a profit-sharing partnership on sales of branded products in its contract with the Robertsons (neither side will reveal details). As a result, the Duck Dynasty name now is plastered on apparel, antibacterial bandages, costumes for people (and dogs) and even an $899.95 camouflage recliner.

"These product extensions just show what a serious player unscripted is in the entertainment space," says A&E executive vp marketing Guy Slattery, who would not comment on how many recliners the network has moved. "The great thing for us was that the Robertsons already had an existing relationship with retailers," he adds.

Walmart, which this fall combined all Duck Dynasty products in a branded aisle in many locations, joins Target, Macy's, JCPenney, Lowe's, Cabela's and Bass Pro on the list of stores pushing Duck Dynasty nationwide.

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For brands reluctant to put their name on T-shirts, Halloween costumes or flavored butters, there are more niche opportunities. OWN recently announced a six-week online course tied to its flagship series Oprah's Lifeclass. For $79.99, the course promises to extend the network's self-help mantra by helping viewers overcome insecurities. It's the first effort of its kind for the young cable net.

OWN expects big engagement despite the experimental nature of the class. Some 620,000 viewers recently registered their contact information for the gratis "Meditation Challenge" with Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra. "When Oprah puts her name on [something], it gives it instant credibility," says OWN co-president Erik Logan, "because Oprah doesn't put her name on things."

In that respect, Winfrey remains in a class of her own. Most in the unscripted sphere remain happy selling where they can. Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, admittedly skeptical of the cruise, capped off the four-day trip by singing and playing guitar for the fans who packed the Lido deck. He says, "It's still hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that 2,000 people agreed to do it with us."