‘The strength of the Masterchef franchise is greater than any judge’: Can Masterchef survive losing its stars?

Earlier this week, Masterchef lost its three long-term hosts, Gary Mehigan, Matt Preston and George Calombaris, over what they and Ten called an inability to agree to contract terms. Since then, there has been a lot of speculation that the franchise can’t survive. Mumbrella’s Hannah Blackiston looks at whether that’s really the case.

I and several media colleagues had similar reactions when it was announced earlier this week, on the day of the grand final no less, that Ten’s Masterchef would be losing its three hosts. Gary Mehigan, Matt Preston and George Calombaris have been with the show since its inception 11 seasons ago. To die-hard fans, the trio feels like an integral part of the show’s makeup, and it was with shock that I read the announcement of their departure.

Since then, there’s been a lot of commentary about whether the franchise stands a chance with new faces at the helm. Ten obviously believes it does, saying in the initial statement that it would be back for another season in 2020. But while it feels like this loss is a shocking one, Masterchef isn’t the first franchise to lose its hosts.

Top Gear

The obvious example is Top Gear. The British TV show, launched in 2002 as a revamp of a 1977 format, was hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May from season two to season 22 (May replaced season one host Jason Dawe).

Hammond, Clarkson and May

The wheels began to come off (pardon the pun) around the end of 2014, mainly thanks to behaviour from Clarkson both on and off the set, but also amid viewer complaints that the three hosts were leaning too hard on caricatures of themselves. In 2015, the 22nd season was put on hiatus by the BBC. Shortly after, the broadcaster announced it would be ending Clarkson’s contract. May and Hammond followed Clarkson out, as did long-time executive producer Andy Wilman, and the three signed a contract with Amazon for The Grand Tour.

They were replaced on Top Gear by Chris Evans and Friends actor Matt LeBlanc, along with a few guest presenters. The show went through some production dramas, aired later than planned and wasn’t received well by critics – largely due to the performance of Evans who then resigned from the program. LeBlanc, Rory Reid and Chris Harris took on the next series, which had another production shake up. In 2018, LeBlanc announced he would be leaving the format, to be replaced by Andrew Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness.

This is most likely the comparison people are leaning on the hardest because Top Gear is itself a franchise. There’s a magazine, there’s merchandise, it has known segments inside it. It was also hosted by three men who, with the exception of May, had been there since the beginning.

Flintoff, McGuinness, and Harris

So what happened when Clarkson, May and Hammond left? The second season of Top Gear averaged around 3.2m UK viewers per episode, but by season 12, when the show was really in its heyday, that built to 7.32m. That had begun to drop back to around 6m by the time the hosts left, but the next season after their departure brought in 3.89m and it dropped again to 3.15m the season after.

Of course it’s very hard to compare how Top Gear fared when compared to Amazon’s The Grand Tour. The big subscription platforms don’t release ratings, and we can only go off their own reports that The Grand Tour broke streaming records, and in 2018 it was announced the cast and crew had signed on for another two years with Amazon, meaning the show is likely to hit at least five seasons. There’s also the question of reach, with Top Gear’s ratings being released in UK viewers, while Amazon is eyeing a global audience.

It’s also fairly unlikely (although I am prepared to be proven wrong) that a service like Amazon is ready to pick up Calombaris, Mehigan and Preston. Masterchef was pulling around 600,000-700,000 metro viewers during season 11, and while it is part of a larger franchise, and arguably one of the more successful iterations, they don’t have the name recognition of Clarkson, Hammond and May.

Top Gear, however, is building its audience again. The last season pulled 3.98m average viewers, which shows that maybe a show can survive after its big hosts leave, but it takes time.

The Great British Bake Off

Hollywood, Perkins, Giedroyc and Berry

The Great British Bake Off is another example. The show kicked off in 2010, and ran through to 2016 with hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc and judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry. Season one averaged 2m viewers per ep, 4m tuned in for season two, and season three 6.5m, making it the second-highest rating show for BBC Two, behind Top Gear, since 2006. The final episode is the most-watched show on BBC Two since the present ratings system was introduced in 2002, beating the previous record set by Top Gear. The ratings were so good, it was bumped up to BBC One for the next season, where it pushed 10m for its fourth episode, and 12.2m for the final, the highest viewer figure for a non-sporting show in the UK for the whole year. Season seven, the final season with the BBC, saw 16m viewers tune in for the final.

It was then that the production company, Love Productions, announced the show would not be returning to the BBC, following a contract with Channel Four. Perkins and Giedroyc announced they would be leaving the show, with Berry also announcing her departure shortly after. Hollywood (Judas) decided to stay. Prue Leith was announced as Berry’s replacement while Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig took up the hosting roles.

The opening of the new season gave the lowest ratings for the show since 2013, but it was Channel Four’s biggest figures since the 2012 Paralympics. The whole season averaged 9m viewers, nowhere near the 16m which watched the final season on the BBC, but still higher than its initial seasons with the broadcaster.

Can Masterchef do the same?

Mehigan, Preston and Calombaris

Certainly, Ten thinks Masterchef can continue. There has been a drumbeat on Twitter that perhaps this is the chance to bring it into 2020 with a new diverse cast.

Ten isn’t afraid to take risks, Pilot Week is a good example of that, as is a lot of the work it’s done with Working Dog Productions. Ten is also good at letting a show find its feet, and if Top Gear and Great British Bake Off are examples to go by, they’ll definitely need to do that.

Ten CEO Paul Anderson says that the results Masterchef delivers are worth taking a gamble on for 2020.

“Masterchef Australia has been custom winter viewing for Australians over the past 11 years. It’s an incredible show and an amazing brand that, year after year, delivers great sales results for advertisers, and connects strongly with audiences. It’s why brands continue to come back each year as partners, and why a fellow iconic brand like Coles has been there right from the start,” says Anderson.

“At its core, the show is about food and ordinary people. This won’t change. Each year we continue to be creative with amazing opportunities for advertisers, and inspirational food ideas for audiences.

“The show airs in 140 territories around the world and is widely described as the best cooking show in the world. Naturally, this attracts the biggest names in food year after year, including Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson and Heston Blumenthal. It’s is a super-high-quality production with the true focus on sharing the wonders of food, rather than capitalising on drama.

“Australia is full of remarkable cooking talent and we can’t wait to introduce another group of amateur chefs – and the next generation of exceptional judging talent. The departure of our judges after 11 amazing seasons with them represents a great opportunity to refresh the Masterchef Australia brand”.

The strength of the format is a view shared by Publicis Media ANZ CEO Toby Barbour. He says that while the judges have been part of the reason it’s succeeded, they haven’t been the whole recipe for its success.

“The strength of the Masterchef franchise is greater than any judge, or collective judges. The Network Ten can take credit for building a successful program and brand over the past 11 years. While the judges have formed part of that success – they don’t own this success. Masterchef is a tremendously popular global franchise in its own right. The departure of the show’s long-running hosts gives Ten the opportunity to refresh what is already a very strong brand, and drive even further growth,” says Barbour.

There are shows in the TV landscape that have an oft-changing hosting lineup. The Voice brings in new hosts every couple of years, Australia’s Got Talent does the same. My Kitchen Rules has had Pete Evans and Manu Feildel since the show began in 2010, but Colin Fassnidge only entered the series in the fourth season and his role has grown, with his name originally slated as being at the helm of a second MKR season for 2019 which was later dropped. There’s also plenty of commentary around the longevity of ‘Paleo Pete’ Evans’ career with the network, given his controversial views which are often shared on social media and morning television. Feildel has been added to the Australia’s Got Talent lineup for Seven also, furthering speculation he and Evans may soon get the chop from MKR.

Evans in full Paleo Pete form

Atomic 212 chairman, and former Ten sales boss, Barry O’Brien says the main takeaway is that we don’t yet know whether the show will suffer, and that it’s important to wait and see before manning the lifeboats.

“Masterchef Australia is a remarkable brand and TV show, and has produced great sales results for many sponsors over many years. The departure of Matt, George and Gary is going to change the show. It’s far too early to predict how that will affect its audience and revenue, and it’s naïve to claim the show is going to suffer,” says O’Brien.

“Masterchef Australia has been a great series for 11 years and Network Ten will work hard to ensure it remains successful and continues to deliver strong results for its partners.”


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