'Masterchef' fries competition in ratings

Cooking show finale becomes top-three program ever.

SYDNEY -- Record audiences for its Sunday finale established amateur cooking competition "Masterchef Australia" as Australian television’s break-out hit of 2009, delivering broadcaster Network Ten 3.7 million capital city viewers and 4.9 million viewers nationally Sunday, according to official ratings figures released Monday.
77% of Australian TV homes tuned into the two-and-a-half hour final, making it the third most watched event on TV since the current ratings system began in 2001, behind the Australian Open men’s tennis final in 2005 (4.04 million) and the 2003 Rugby World Cup final (4.01 million).

At the same time its become a cultural phenomenon. The "Masterchef effect” has seen sell-outs of cooking equipment and ingredients in food stores on the day after they feature in the show, kids are praising their mothers for “nice caramelization” echoing judges' comments, at their evening meals and the shows three judges,  have become the unlikeliest of TV’s new sex symbols.

The program, based on a format owned by Shine Group but produced here by Fremantle Media, was a risky undertaking for Ten, which commissioned it as a replacement for Big Brother, and which has constantly struggled for good numbers in the all important 7 pm slot -- the lead-in to the rest of the evening's primetime viewing, in the last few years.

“Masterchef” changed that since it premiered in early May, and the show won its timeslots each night in all age categories and in each key demographic, and helped Ten regain the number one spot in its target 18 – 49 demographic. 

Its success has largely been put down to meeting an increasing demand for feel-good television, marked by other shows such as the Nine Network’s “Farmer Wants A Wife” and “Random Acts of Kindness," although network and production execs alike were genuinely surprised by "Masterchef’s" runaway success and its universal appeal.

No regular cooking show had ever appeared in primetime here, and Gordon Ramsay’s shows fizzled after a brief high on Nine last year.

Indeed the Australian version of Masterchef has "injected the cooking format with steroids” said Shine Reveille International president Chris Grant.

“We’ve always recognized the power of the Masterchef format," he said, which in its home market of the U.K. has “always worked for the BBC whatever you do to it." 

But he adds “our whole belief is to give the format the flexibility to allow producers to recast it in each market."

That led to the show's Australian producers, Fremantle Media making some major changes to suit this market, and a commercial broadcaster while retaining the heart of the U.K. concept, according to the company’s director of factual programming here, Paul Franklin.

“We needed to make it more commercial for a mass audience but its retained the essence of the show,” he said.

“The contestants are at a point in their lives where they want to change direction. They’re amateur cooks making a go of something they’re passionate about,” Franklin added.

The changes to the format were borne out of Ten’s need for a “big event” show covering five hours of television across six nights per week.

A very structured format has a series of challenges and eliminations providing the drama and theatre, similar in parts to Bravo’s “Top Chef” format; personnel including a gorgeous host, two chefs who are the mentors/judges, and a food critic as third judge, all with big personalities, as well as celebrity guest chefs who take part in weekly challenges. A Masterchef Kitchen, which looks like a 5-star restaurant, all added to the appeal of the show.

“It costs a bit to make it but being in prime TV real estate, we wanted it to look great. If we got it right the first time the show could well be around for five years," Franklin said.

Also, the feel-good factor comes into play in tough economic times.

”It's very much about positive values these days,” Ten’s chief programming officer, David Mott, said. 

“We think television has moved on from the aggressive reality-type shows like 'Big Brother' or 'Temptation Island.' There is something more redeeming about the shows coming through now."