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Fast-food chains add TVs to their dining rooms

Consumers typically watch about five hours of television per day, according to a 2009 Nielsen report. And soon they won’t have to stop while they munch a burger and fries beyond the range of their remotes.

McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell, Zaxby’s, Del Taco and a number of other quick-service chains are experimenting with entertainment packages delivered to flat-screen monitors inside their dining rooms. They’re cautiously recasting the fast-food tabletop as a TV table, part of a larger effort to make customers feel at home and stay awhile, perhaps while enjoying a high-margin coffee or dessert.

Until the pack catches up, there’s also the advantage of sporting an amenity for TV-loving guests that a competitor doesn’t.

“When they’re making their next dining decision, they’ll remember that Carl’s and Hardee’s have TVs,” said Brad Rosenberg, manager of digital strategy and marketing for the regional burger brand’s parent company, CKE Restaurants Inc. About 218 company-run and franchised Hardee’s units and 140 Carl's Jr. outlets currently feature a proprietary entertainment package called The Bite network, which offers 35 to 45 minutes of looped programming.

“It’s directly in line with our young hungry guys,” Rosenberg said. “When they’re at home, they’re probably on the phone, they’re on the computer, they’re watching TV. This is the same sort of thing.”

Each of the Hardee’s and Carl’s test restaurants sports three flat screens. One is positioned in the ordering area and runs promotional information about specials or add-on products, acting as “an extension of our menu board,” Rosenberg said.

The other two screens are on the walls in the dining room. Each is divided into three sections. The main panel of the screen features the entertainment loop, which consists of sports and other programming developed for CKE by its partner in the venture. Included are “advertising breaks” showcasing third parties’ goods or services, as well as commercials for the host store’s own products, Rosenberg explained. “Six minutes of the 45-minute loop is ours,” he said.

Another section of the screen shows weather reports, and a third area carries a news ticker.

CKE gets a share of the revenues from the network’s ads, which are sold by its partner in the venture.

“As they build the network, those sales will be a new revenue stream for us,” Rosenberg said. “But that’s not the reason we’re doing it. It’s a feature for our guests and a way of extending our marketing efforts.”

He acknowledged that one of the objectives is encouraging guests to stay longer and perhaps fill out their meals with desserts or additional beverages. He declined to say what effect the system is having on the average checks of Carl’s and Hardee’s, but mentioned that CKE will soon test a few promotions via the network to gauge its sales impact.

For instance, he explained, the point-of-sale flat screen may tout a bounce-back deal not offered through any other medium. If guests come back the next day and cite the offer, they get some sort of special consideration -- and CKE learns if it has a new promotional tool at its disposal.

McDonald’s is also aiming to extend guests’ stays with its proprietary entertainment network, the McDonald’s Channel. Flat-screen TVs airing the programming are currently being tested in 19 stores, a spokeswoman told Nation’s Restaurant News.

One of them is a renovated unit in the Chelsea section of New York City that sports a new interior design for McDonald’s domestic operations. Among the more noticeable points of departure from older stores is the seating. The stools at common tables all have cushioned bottoms and booths have upholstered seatbacks, providing what local press coverage termed a lounge-like ambience. Although the store is the first in the United States to be given the new look, thousands of stores in Europe reportedly feature the design.

Flat screens in the Chelsea McDonald's upstairs and main-floor dining rooms feature programming from the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

The programs “will entice the customer to sit down and enjoy their meal — and perhaps to stay a little longer,” explained a McDonald’s Channel promotional video posted on YouTube. “With this innovation, regular customers will want to stay awhile, and enjoy their meals. Younger customers will be drawn in by the buzz to see what it’s all about, and will come back again to see what’s new.”

The McDonald’s spokeswoman would not divulge results of the Channel test. “We will continue to evaluate,” she said in an e-mail. “No final decisions have been made at this time.”

CKE’s Rosenberg similarly stressed that Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have not yet decided whether to roll out their networks systemwide. “The TVs are in less than 10 percent of our stores and there’s been no decision yet,” he said, though “so far it’s been a very positive experience.”

Burger King, in contrast, is already rolling out a new design that includes flat-screen TVs on a few tabletops in the dining area. The so-called 20/20 look is already in place at 60 units worldwide, and will eventually be retrofitted on the 12,000 other stores in operation worldwide, franchisor Burger King Corp. said in October.

Renovated stores typically enjoy sales bumps of 12 percent to 15 percent, the announcement noted. Press reports peg the cost of the conversions at $300,000 to $600,000 per store.

Burger King declined to provide details about the content shown on the tabletop monitors. But pictures of a prototype restaurant show the screens can be used for games like Word Dojo, a popular Scrabble-like game.

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