Chipotle seeks TV partner for its food-industry satire

February 19, 2014: 9:23 AM ET

Bringing Farmed and Dangerous to a TV network would be a major win for a show produced in part to advance a corporate interest.

140218160208-farmed-and-dangerous-chipotle-620xaFORTUNE -- Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) has held talks with several TV networks to continue Farmed and Dangerous, the four-part comic miniseries satirizing the industrial food system, which began running on Hulu this week.

Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing & development officer of the eco-conscious, fast-casual restaurant chain, declined to say which networks he's been talking to, but he did say that going with an advertising-supported broadcaster would be "problematic," thanks to the show's scathing critique of food-industry practices. That could turn off advertisers, particularly those connected in any way to the Big Food -- which is a lot of advertisers. So maybe HBO (TWX) or Showtime (CBS)? He wouldn't say, though the tone of the show is in line with some of the shows that appear on those networks, such as Veep on HBO. The decision on whether to continue the miniseries -- which ends on a somewhat ambiguous note -- will hinge in large part on how well it does on Hulu, the Internet video service owned by several big media companies.

So far, there's no viewership data from Hulu (it debuted Monday), but the overall response to the show has been overwhelmingly positive in terms of feedback from critics and on social media, Crumpacker said.

MORE: Chipotle's hilariously scary take on the industrial farming system

But there are some critics who say that the show is just a marketing ploy. Yes, yes it is, say the producers. So?

"It's true," Crumpacker said on Tuesday. "It's marketing. But it's marketing based on our values as a company and as people."

Farmed and Dangerous is a comic sledgehammer blow against the industrial food system, particularly practices such as the overuse of hormones in livestock and the use of genetically modified seeds. The plot involves a farmer/food activist taking on a company called Animoil that is about to market a product, PetroPellet, that is made of petroleum and serves as a food source for cows. The trouble starts when the hero-farmer publishes a video of an exploding PetroPellet-fed cow on YouTube. It's funny stuff.

It is also, like all good satire, sweeping to the point of unfairness, and because of that, some of the criticism has been quite vehement. The show amounts to "a smear campaign against America's farmers," according to Ted Sheely, a California farmer and keeper of the blog The Truth about Trade and Technology. He hammers on the fact that Chipotle's aim is to enhance its corporate image and draw more business. Again, Crumpacker asks, what's wrong with that? If nobody knew who was behind the show, "nobody would have figured out it was us," he said.

That's probably true. Chipotle is mentioned only once, in an offhand joke, over the show's two-hour running time.

As for Farmed and Dangerous smearing "America's farmers," director Tim Piper notes with a tone of frustration that "It's about a farmer." That farmer, Chip Randolph, is the story's hero, and the only farmer depicted. All the villains work in the food-processing industry, or in the public relations industry. They all wear suits.

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The notion that a profit-motivated business can't legitimately take up a cause that is generally associated with interests that are generally thought of as "anti-corporate" is a mystery to Crumpacker. Some critics have noted Chipotle's $17 billion market cap and approximately $3 billion in annual profit as if those numbers delegitimized the company's business approach, and as if only angry hippies should be allowed to criticize corporate power structures. "Chipotle is a threat to some parts of the industry" that "represent industrial interests," Crumpacker said, calling the references to Chipotle's business success "ironic."

Sheely and other critics have called the series "propaganda," a harsh-sounding word that might also be accurate, if it means that the motives Chipotle's motive is self-interest. Neither Crumpacker nor Piper deny the criticism, but they do insist that quality was their top priority. When making decisions on the script, Piper said, "we always picked what was more entertaining over what points we wanted to get across."

The series cost Chipotle about $1 million to produce. And the company didn't just farm out all the work to TV people. Crumpacker himself developed the concept, and even came up with "PetroPellet," "Animoil," and the name of the PR firm that protects that company: the Industrial Food Image Bureau (note the acronym).

To continue, the company will have to find more outside help, Crumpacker said. "I'd like this to go on, but it's a big challenge. We need to find a partner."

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