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MasterChef’s secret sauce

MasterChef-USAMasterChef recently broke the 50-territory mark for local versions. TBI spoke to the people making, distributing and broadcasting the show about the ingredients that have helped it become the preeminent global cooking show.

Not every hit international format comes with a grocery bill, but broadcasters ordering MasterChef will need to spend between £300-£450 (US$485-$730) in the UK and €10,000 (US$12,600) in France and Spain per episode for ingredients. The disparity in the shopping bill reflects the differences in versions of the show around the world. The UK version, adapted from the 1990 original and relaunched on the BBC in 2005, has primetime production values, but looks intimate next to the scaled-up MasterChefs in Australia and elsewhere.

This scalability and flexibilty is one reason for its success. There are several others cited by executives, hosts, broadcasters and contestants when asked why what looks like a straightforward cooking competition has become such a hit.

Food (if not cooking) unites everyone, and MasterChef is also an aspirational show. Successful contestants – there have now been over 10,000 around the world – open restaurants, publish books, make TV appearances and get jobs in the food industry.

“It’s more than a food format, it’s an aspirational show and shows how people can change their lives,” says Joe Bastianich, a judge on the US version on Fox. “For some people the food is irrelevant and it’s just about the people, and for others it’s all about the food and the process,” he adds, highlighting another key element of the show: the storytelling as viewers get to know and love/hate the contestants. In Australia, one season even had a wedding, with the couple going on to open a successful Melbourne restaurant.

The audience is arguably more likely to veer towards love than hate with contestants on MasterChef. The overall, tone is supportive. “There is very careful casting of judges who want people to succeed: the show has a positive message,” says Shine International CEO Nadine Nohr.

Assaf Gil, producer of MasterChef Israel echoes these sentiments and says the judges on his show adopt an attitude that is more ‘We are willing to learn’ than ‘We know everything, impress us’.

Nohr, is understandably pleased to have MasterChef in her unscripted locker. “It’s a very crowded market for cooking, and MasterChef is the mother of cooking formats,” she says. “It keeps selling into new territories, and the rate of re-order is amazing. That’s because of the strength of the format and the nurturing it gets from the Shine Group in terms of remaking it and remaining true to its essence.”

It also naturally mirrors the society of the territory airing the show. The food cooked reflects classic national dishes and newer ones inspired by immigrants and different cultural groups. There is also jeopardy, as the contestants turn out food that varies from Michelin quality to inedible.

Junior-MC-SpainBastianich hosts the US version alongside Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot, and the same trio fronts MasterChef Junior, also on Fox.

“It’s the biggest competition reality show on TV and the biggest food show on TV,” he says of the US MasterChef. “It has become part of the conversation,” As the restauranteur-judge, it’s Bastianich’s job to talk up his own show, but his claim bears scrutiny: season five consistently won the all-important 18-to-49s, ranked as the top show across all demos, and peaked with over six million viewers.

As well as his US judging duties, Bastianich appears in the Italian version, which has run on Cielo and Sky Uno, both of which are 21st Century Fox channels.

Regionally, the growth of the format in Latin America has helped it hit the 50-territory mark, with versions now in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia. The format has been sold into 52 territories in all, with Bangladesh and Lebanon yet to make their versions. Most international versions are into multiple seasons, and the format has a huge 83% recommission rate.

The group that is at an earlier stage, with one season aired, includes Albania, Brazil, Colombia, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Morocco, Pakistan, Slovakia and Turkey. At the other end of the scale, territories that have had five seasons or more include Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the US. The UK is the most seasoned MasterChef territory, with the show stretching to 11 seasons.

MC-Spain-1In many territories, MasterChef had a first-mover advantage and been the first cooking competition series to go out on mainstream TV in peak time. Spain is a good example and Carlos Mochales, director of entertainment at TVE, says he ordered a local version of the show to stake a claim in primetime cooking.

MasterChef is a fantastic format that had not been aired in Spain,” he says. “In fact, there were no other cooking talent shows airing, and this gave us the opportunity to be the first in the category.”

The first season averaged an 18.6% share for TVE, with the final taking 33.1%. The broadcaster also has Junior MasterChef. As a public broadcaster, Mochales says TVE also considered the show a good way to showcase and generate interest in Spanish cooking. “We saw in MasterChef a great potential to boost cooking as part of Spain’s national brand,” he says.

The dilemma for the producers and broadcasters is which version of MasterChef to format. Macarena Rey, executive producer of the TVE version, says it went down the US route. “It has a similar thrilling rhythm, and we travel to wonderful and spectacular places to have our offsite challenges,” she says.

MC-Israel-2Individual territories add their own twists, and these elements can also travel. Rey says in Spain, the producers introduced a way for eliminated contestants to return, with their fellow participants deciding who could come back based on a blind taste of their dishes. The Spanish also brought in an element introduced in the Israeli version of the show, ‘macro casting’, whereby hundreds of chefs compete to enter the competition proper.

The series global producers get a chance to sample the formats served up by their compatriots at a twice-yearly MasterChef Exchange. And when a new version is picked up, there are numerous forebears to choose from. “It doesn’t always get taken back to the first version,” says Shine’s Nohr. “For example, we used the Italian version as a point of reference for the Albanian version.”

The judges also help the show evolve, Bastianich explains. “The applicant pool gets bigger, and they learn how to play the game and how to win, so we [judges] have to keep up,” he says. “Me and the other judges think about new challenges, so the contestants should expect the unexpected.”

Half the 52 MasterChef territories have now ordered one of its spin-offs. Celebrity MasterChef is in 15 territories, MasterChef All Stars in four and MasterChef: The Professionals in two. The most popular of the other shows in the franchise is Junior MasterChef, which is now in 18 territories.

One challenge with Junior MasterChef is that of filming with youngsters. An episode of MasterChef generally requires a two-day shoot, with one challenge filmed per day and two per instalment of the show. Typically, that involves eight cameras filming for 9-to-10 hours a day. Those kind of time demands cannot be placed upon kids, meaning Junior MasterChef often has shorter runs, limiting the volume Shine has for tape sales.

The show, which is still for a mainstream audience, offers a MasterChef “double whammy”, Nohr says. “It’s MasterChef plus the heartwarming power of kids. If you have the original, there is that knowledge and relationship with the judges, and you know the them in their more daunting mode. Seeing them then interact with the kids provides an interesting new dynamic.”

MasterChef Australia in the ratings race

MasterChef_AUS-2MasterChef has been a huge success for Network Ten in Australia, but having hit the ratings highs it then started to fall away, sparking some serious thought about the format.

“Given a food/cooking show of this nature had never been attempted in primetime, we needed to introduce it as ‘event television’, and this influenced the approach we took with style and presentation,” says Shine Australia boss Mark Fennessy of the scaled-up Ten version. “The network took a huge risk and was a laughing stock when it was announced, but the rewards for that risk are evident.”

Initial ratings were modest, before taking off and hitting an unprecedented level. The finale of season two was the third-most-watched show ever in Australia and forced a national election debate to be rescheduled for fear no-one would tune in while the cooking series was on air.

The success, however, didn’t go unnoticed by Ten’s peers. Seven brought in My Kitchen Rules, and under pressure from Ten, Shine altered the MasterChef recipe and the format was changed. The result was that season five was a ratings disappointment and, Fennessy accepts, went “off-brand”.

The reaction, the Shine Australia boss says, was to go back to basics. “We successfully argued for a return to ‘authentic’ MasterChef. We ramped up casting like never before and dispensed with the noisy characters, tricks and gimmicks. We also had active consultation on the network marketing campaign and on-air promos, so the message to the audience was seamless. It worked. The word on the street was that ‘MasterChef was back’, and the ratings began to build once again. Going forward it will be more of the same and then some.”

The upshot is that having looked like coming to the end of its extraordinary run, the resurgent format seems set to air for more seasons. “If we can collectively resist the temptation of increasing the hours or running too many variants, it’s got at least five years and probably more,” Fennessy says.