Thursday, October 29, 2009

Finally, A Top Chef Vegas Party!

The money shot... Paul bartalotta with himself on the tv: on Twitpic

My Oct. 8 column in the Weekly baffling over why Vegas was blowing its "Top Chef" moment by not doing viewing parties or creating Top Chef menus had a pretty cool impact. Chef Rick Moonen, who appeared in the Oct. 21 episode and was one of the Top Chef Masters contestants in the special mini-season this spring, held a viewing party at his Restaurant RM at Mandalay Bay. I didn't notice until it was too late my emailed invite, but I did receive a note from Rick prior to that telling me that he agreed completely with the column.

I also understand that the M Resort folks were pretty ticked off. That property took it on the chin the most in that column as they're the Top Chef host property in the show but they've done absolutely nothing to market that fact. I've since heard that contractually, they're not allowed.

OK, then. If so, the young property desperate for some national TV exposure made kind of a lame deal with Bravo. It's not a secret in the program that M was the host property and it's not giving away anything about what occurs in the show to invite tourists and locals to come to a viewing party every Thursday. There is no logical reason for Bravo to oppose that.

It also doesn't seem that other resorts are bound to the same constraints. As previously mentioned, Moonen had his viewing party and, last night, Wynn Las Vegas hosted one at Bartolotta di Mare with namesake chef Paul Bartolotta, who was a guest judge. Plus, in a few weeks when Wynn chef Alex Stratta appears, they'll do it again. And the Wynn folks aren't playing coy about the fact that their chefs are in upcoming episodes, either.

While these are not quite a full-fledged, heavily hyped, open-to-the-public viewing events I imagined, it was a lot of fun and very enlightening to spend last night with Bartolotta, his relatives and business associates and some media figures around town in his private banquet room at the restaurant. This "mirror"...

This is the tv... And a mirror where the #topchef viewing par... on Twitpic

...became a TV:

I Tweeted extensively during the gathering, although AT&T Wireless' coverage was so lousy that I had to run outside to send stuff during the commercial breaks. (The R-J's Norm Clarke, who uses a Blackberry, was able to Tweet away from his seat, the bastard.)

About 35 or 40 folks attended, including the Las Vegas Weekly online goddess Sarah Feldberg, whose piece on the event should be posted any day now. And there was plenty of interesting "Top Chef" scoop from Chef B. For one thing, he groaned loudly and declared "inedible" and "disgusting" the food for the challenge made by Robin Leventhal, the contestant constantly being bashed by the others. Watching himself eating whatever she made on the TV made him squirmy, in fact.

Bartolotta was in the show to judge the Quickfire challenge and eat at the later meal but not to judge the outcome, so he said he didn't know who would win or lose the week. I don't want to give it away, but he agreed with the decision to eliminate the loser who was not the aforementioned Robin. He said of Robin, "She adds drama to show."

This being party thrown at a restaurant for a chef appearing on a cooking show, it shouldn't be a surprise that there was food and that all of it was delicious. The most dramatic was this branzino (sea bass) baked under sea salt, anise, lemon peel, orange peel:

The fish were about to eat! #topchef on Twitpic

The most amusing food moment was that the waiters were handing out this...

Right when Natalie portman told #topchef peeps she's a vegeta... on Twitpic

...just as Top Chef star guest Natalie Portman (like me, a Syosset High School alum) telling the cheftestants she's a vegetarian and that their task is to make a meatless dish. Irony!

Not present was Steve Wynn who I caught leaving Bartolotta as I was arriving at about 9 p.m. He didn't seem to know that Chef B was about to have a TV star turn and a party to celebrate it and promised to return for it, but he never did.

Other local figures in attendance included KLAS-TV anchor Denise Valdez and reporter Jonathan Humbert (here with his wife):

Other notables here are Sarah feldberg of lvw, @norm_Clarke, ... on Twitpic

The evening ended with a vanilla semifreddo with fig confit and red wine as well as this, a lemon olive oil cake topped by rosemary ice cream:

Not gona spoil outcome but bartalotta agreed! Look what's for... on Twitpic

Bartolotta clearly was bitten by the TV bug. He's appeared often enough, but this adventure into Top Chef clearly had him dreaming of greater stardom. "I really think I could do a show of my own," he told me. It was unclear whether anything specific was in the works.

Oh, and one more thing. Bartolotta's restaurant phone began ringing with people asking for reservations as soon as the show started airing in the East.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Paris LV Loses Gay Ad Award...

...but should be honored to be among the nominees for this:

Congrats to Harrah's for coming even that close in the first year that the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation gave out such awards. They were up against Macy's, Kenneth Cole, Absolut and, uh, Swanson, in the Outstanding Advertising (Print) category. Yes, the soup company. If you want to see what they were nominated for, you can review all the nominees and winners' work on GLAAD's site.

What beat out gay Paris and lesbolicious soup? Why... vodka, of course! Which is almost like giving the Cy Young award to Cy Young. Absolut has been doing groundbreaking gay-specific print ads for decades, they virtually invented the craft. Maybe they should consider naming the honor for them and give someone else a chance. You know, like the company that decided to actually take a serious, calculated risk and intensively brand a billion-dollar resort as "the gay casino," a notion that not long ago would have been a kiss of death in heterosexist Vegas.

You may be wondering, if you're not gay, why it's necessary to honor such work at all. But to give you some idea of how far we still have to go before gay people will be present in advertising that appears in the mainstream media -- the two ads above were placed strictly in GLBT publications -- take a look at this brief spot. It's the best GLAAD could come up with to honor "Outstanding TV, Mainstream Market."

Any straight people out there know why it's even considered a "gay" ad? There is an answer but it's so minute, it's so coded and stealthy that when Miles and I saw it on TV once, we thought it could be a coincidence. Not exactly the definition of out and proud, but this is, evidently, the best we got these days.

Here We Go Again With Sherm

Circulation figures in newspapers are tricky business. As I reported on Monday, the Review-Journal was one of a few publications that enjoyed an apparent increase during a reporting period that saw disastrous declines.

I was willing to consider the prospect that the R-J bump was due to a rise in interest following the Sun's Pulitzer. That made some sense. Otherwise, what had changed? The coverage has been curtailed, sections have been folded into one another and the product overall contains less value.

Then the R-J's own chief told Editor & Publisher that, in fact, there was no gain at all, that the increase was due to new accounting rules that permit the inclusion of the 20,000 subscribers who receive the R-J's electronic edition. That's a surprisingly high number, but let's take them at their word. And this is their word from that story:

Steve Coffeen, director of corporate circulation for Stephens Media, which owns the Review-Journal, says the paper's print circulation is actually down seven percent daily and four percent on Sunday.

"I would say all of it is based on the electronic edition," Coffeen said of the increase. "We have about 20,000 electronic subscribers who were not allowed to be included before because of pricing rules. We didn't change anything, they changed the rules."

How, then, could it be that the publisher, Sherman Frederick, is out there bragging about a circulation increase when his own people are admitting to a decrease?

From Chuck Muth's e-mail missive Nevada News & Views today:

That Was No Joke - Las Vegas Review-Journal publisher Sherman Frederick also spoke briefly at the Keystone dinner and assured everyone in attendance that Sen. Harry Reid’s remark back in August that he hoped the conservative paper would go out of business was definitely not a joke; that it was intended and received as a serious threat. Frederick also noted that the RJ’s circulation has increased since the brouhaha erupted while other papers are losing subscribers.

Oh, dear. Not only is Frederick misrepresenting the circulation change again but he's pretending that there's an increase that was caused by the paper's conservative positions and his personal jihad against Sen. Harry Reid.

So, if the circulation actually FELL 7 percent, can we just as reasonably conclude that people are cancelling their subscriptions because Sherm has been hatin' on Harry? Yes, that's an absurd notion -- there are too many broader factors driving newspaper circulation fluctuations to pin it in any way on any particular article or situation -- but it wasn't too absurd for this guy to claim in the reverse!

As I've documented here, this is not the first time Sherm Frederick has played fast and loose with circulation figures to fit his ego or political purposes. In an April 6, 2008 column, he wrote, "Because of readers such as you, the Las Vegas Review-Journal will be one of the few metropolitan newspapers in the country to post a nice gain in paid circulation this year."

Trouble was, he was writing for a Sunday audience that had shrunk 2 percent. The weekday circulation was up 1.2 percent, true, but in whose reasonable mind is that a "nice gain"? And the paper was still down 7.2 percent at that point from its 2006 figures, so bragging required an amount of hubris that I can barely fathom.

I like the paper and especially like the two-in-one part of what I get on my driveway every day. I wish more people read it and were better informed. But I find it incredibly sad that its publisher knew the reason for the apparent increase, knew that it was actually a decrease and still chose to stand before his ideological brethren and lie.

It's sad, but it's not, sadly, surprising.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Puzzling over the R-J's circulation gain

The latest newspaper circulation data was released today and it was horrifying. The New York Times has shed 7.2% and is now below 1 million in sales per weekday, USA Today dropped 17 percent and lost its No. 1 ranking to the Wall Street Journal, and overall average daily circulation plunged 10.6 percent. See the report and list here.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal, somewhat surprisingly, defied this trend in dramatic fashion. The circulation data is up 6.56 percent from 165,011 to 175,841. A small handful of papers went up.

I thought I had a hunch as to what had happened here. The reporting period was from April to October of 2009, and in April of 2009 came the single most significant moment in Nevada journalism, the Las Vegas Sun's Pulitzer Prize for Public Service reporting on the construction deaths at CityCenter. Could it be that the public thought, "Huh, that's a big deal, maybe I should take another look at the local paper"? Such an event wouldn't move the needle in a place like New York or Los Angeles where Pulitzers are a dime a dozen, but in a city of rootless migrants, maybe there's a curiosity effect similar to when a little movie wins an Oscar?

Would that it were so. And how bizarre that I've been disabused of my theory by none other than the Review-Journal's own brass. In Joe Strupp's Editor & Publisher report about the few circulation jumpers is this passage:

At the Las Vegas Review-Journal, executive are crediting their 6.56% increase, from 165,011 to 175,841, to a simple change in ABC rules that allow the paper's electronic edition to be counted in total circulation.

Steve Coffeen, director of corporate circulation for Stephens Media, which owns the Review-Journal, says the paper's print circulation is actually down seven percent daily and four percent on Sunday.

"I would say all of it is based on the electronic edition," Coffeen said of the increase. "We have about 20,000 electronic subscribers who were not allowed to be included before because of pricing rules. We didn't change anything, they changed the rules."

What a disappointment. Also, a curiosity. He says there are 20,000 electronic subscribers? I assume this is the electronic edition that looks just like the actual paper, not people who read stuff on their website. I must say, I have never, ever met or had any communication with anyone who subscribed to the local newspaper this way. You'd think the people who did so would be techies who also read blogs and such. Right? They're saying more than 11 percent of their readership does this?

Does that make sense?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Steve Wynn: Socialist?

On Oct. 13, Steve Wynn went on Fox Business Channel to say this of President Obama's health care aims:

"We are seeing socialism-lite here. It would be OK if it worked, it never works.”

Two days later, he was on the Encore Theater stage with Garth Brooks explaining how he would approach ticket sales for the country singer's comeback appearances:

The stars. Wynn telling story about how the Garth thing happe... on Twitpic

"People that buy seats are going produce ID. And the ID will be used to identify them when they come for the performance. Our goal is not to have these tickets jacked up to $2-, $3-, $4-, $5oo or $1000, which is the case in Las Vegas. We are taking evasive action from ticket scalpers. [Garth] was very insistent about it."

Am I the only one who sees the contradiction here? Other observers have been intrigued by how Wynn can extol the joys of doing business in totalitarian China while casting aspersions on Obama's efforts to revive a capitalist economy and provide health care for all. But I'm more intrigued by a different paradox.

Isn't shutting down scalpers the same as attacking the free market and capitalism? Aren't they people who make an investment at Wynn's foolishly under-market price of $125 a seat and take the risk that others will want to pay more? Sometimes scalpers are wrong and get stuck with tickets they can't move; that's the nature of the beast, no?

Let's go over the rules as they are published on the Wynn website:

Specific procedures have been put in place in an effort to ensure that the tickets for concerts are accessible to fans at face value and through authorized sales channels exclusively.

Limit 6 concert tickets per order or per person or per credit card. Persons who exceed the ticket limit may have any or all of their orders and tickets cancelled without notice by Wynn Las Vegas, LLC at its discretion. This includes orders associated with the same name, e-mail address, billing address, credit card number or other information. No exceptions.

Tickets will be available for pick-up at Will Call at Wynn Las Vegas after 12 p.m. PT on the day of the concert upon presentation of valid photo I.D., confirmation number and actual credit card used for payment. Under no circumstance will tickets be distributed in advance.

Ticket holders must enter the Encore Theater with their entire party. Wynn reserves the right to request valid I.D. of the ticket holder prior to entry into the Encore Theater at show time. The person who purchased the ticket(s) must be a member of the party entering the theater.

All ticket sales are final and are non-refundable and non-transferable.

No one has the permission of Wynn Las Vegas to sell this ticket for a price in excess of $143.00.

Management reserves the right to cancel any ticket and refund the face value of the ticket to the ticket holder, if management determines, in its sole and absolute discretion, that such ticket was purchased from a ticket reseller at an amount in excess of face value.

Tickets must be picked up no later than one-hour prior to show time or will be subject to cancellation with no refund.

That's cold. No refunds. No advance ticket issuances. Final. Non-transferable. No exceptions. Theoretically you could resell them for $143 or less, but how would anyone get in under that circumstances? You can't even, so far as this reads, GIVE AWAY your tickets. Huh.

At the press conference, the crowd -- including journalists!?! -- cheered this anti-scalping effort. But those folks won't be cheering so loudly when they try to surprise Grandpa with tickets for Christmas during his upcoming Vegas trip and realize he can't get in without the presence of the ticket-buyer, who's not going on the trip. Can I call ahead and make such an arrangement? If so, how do you know if that's really my Grandpa or if it's some ticket-broker client? What if I get swine flu three days before the show? I'm stuck with tickets and Garth is stuck with empty seats? Again, I can't even give these seats away?!?

Today, Wynn Las Vegas staff began a thankless game of whack-a-mole. Jade Bailey-Assam, the Tweeter (@WynnLasVegas) wrote: "We're looking for unauthorized sales of Garth Brooks tkts. Please help & tweet links to sites where you see tkts for sale."

Well, gee, how hard could that be? EBay alone has about 100 entries already. Scalpers have figured out the end-run, that they can pick up the seats themselves on the day-of and personally deliver the tickets. A pair of seats advertised as center section Row H on Feb. 12 has 22 bids now and is at $710 right now. That's three times the face value and there's five hours to go on that auction.

The intensive efforts that would have to be undertaken here are unreasonable and prohibitive. It would require someone being hired specifically to do nothing but root out this alleged evil. As Steve Wynn, in his heart of hearts, must appreciate, entrepreneurs will always find a way. Always.

The folks hurt by this? The normal people, actually. They'll be stuck with tickets they can't resell if they really need to and can't give away if they so desire. I thought of a partial solution, but these rules don't allow for it: Wynn should accept refunds less, say, 10 percent. They know they can resell them, so at least that solves the problem of what people can do if their circumstances change at the last minute, if they get sick or snowed out or whatever. This still doesn't solve many other dilemmas herein, though.

I appreciate the idea here. It's admirable. It's nice. Garth wants everyone to enjoy his performances and to pay the face price because that's fair. Wynn wants to oblige his talent to close the deal.

But he might have considered saying this to Garth:

"We are seeing socialism-lite here. It would be OK if it worked, it never works.”