5/01/2013 04:13:00 PM

The Check, Please Top Five and Social Media Firestorm

Check, Please! has narrowed its search for a future host down to five candidates. The process began with an open call in January that attracted 900 applicants. In March, those 900 were whittled down to 17 finalists, whose video auditions were released to the public for an elementary school-style election process that turned the serious competition for a coveted hosting job into a popularity contest fueled by social media.

The search for a host this time around is drastically different than the process to hire former host Alpana Singh in 2003. Executive producer David Manilow said the process of parading candidates in front of the public is in line with the style of the show - a noncritical look at a wide variety of restaurants around Chicago. “We’re an open and inclusive brand,” Manilow said. “So we tried to make the process open and inclusive.”

How open is too open? Auditions, by nature, are a sensitive process - stakes are high, jobs are on the line and feelings get hurt. So when Manilow started posting audition tapes and meetings with contestants on Twitter, his nearly 5,000 followers noticed. The story of the Check, Please! auditions was picked up by several local publications, including our own, and candidates were interviewed. The innocent auction turned into a heated race. Everyone in the food community noticed.

Everyone except Manilow.

“I think I’m in a cave or something," he said. "I hear, ‘Oh my god, everyone is talking about it,’ and Jackie [Wedewer] and I are like, 'Really?’ We don’t spend a whole lot of time gauging things. We’re hoping it works, and if people talk about it - cool.”

Finalists petitioned votes via aggressive social media campaigns and one even threw a party at Tavernita that included custom-made cookies featuring Rochelle Trotter’s face. The show captures a weekly audience of 150,000 viewers and is occasionally WTTW’s highest-rated program. If the new host gathers as much attention as the auditions, those ratings could see an increase. “For the record, the Check, Please! auditions have been a brilliant marketing/buzz-generating campaign from Dave Manilow & Co. Smart dude,” food writer Kevin Pang tweeted.

“We all used social media to get ourselves out there,” finalist and chef Cleetus Friedman said. “It's more the producers using it for hype than part of the audition process on our end.”

Even those without a strong social media presence could not deny the pull. “I saw that they were looking for a new host though a friend’s Facebook wall. So it’s kinda funny how this process is social media driven,” said contestant Alia Dalal, adding, “I think I posted once or tweeted once.”

Neither of the two made it past the top 17. Today, the top five contestants were announced (freelance writer Senam Amegashie, Tavern on the Park owner Donny De Castro, Culinary Curator president Catherine De Orio, editor and S. Levy Foods owner Sarah Levy and Ina's owner Ina Pinkney). After airing an episode that features the finalist, a new host will be announced on May 29.

In addition to a new host, the show will have a new set for its 13th season, designed by 555 International. Manilo says that despite the recent push in social media - they've launched a new event blog and Twitter feed called Check, Please PLANit - the show will not change. “They certainly would not have been the final [five] if I was doing this privately,” Manilow admitted. “If it’s something that they don’t embrace, then they would not be the best host.”

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