For those who maintain that food programming has reached a saturation point and that TV viewers are well beyond satiated with food competition shows, the performances of two versions of the global smash format MasterChef in the UK and Australia this past week provide an effective rebuttal.
Just last night, the final for the Australian version of MasterChef on Ten brought in the biggest ratings for a single program in at least five years at 5.74 million viewers, according to preliminary reports. And in the UK, the first episode of the new season of Celebrity MasterChef last week pulled in over 4 million viewers. Tasty results all around.
Thus, there’s ample curiosity surrounding the American version of the format, co-produced by Reveille and Ramsay’s production shingle One Potato Two Potato and hitting Fox this Tuesday at 9pm EST. But if the reputation and buzz surrounding the international hit isn’t enough (it’s often referred to as the American Idol of food shows), the presence of iconic TV chef Gordon Ramsay (Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares) should help cook up a healthy number of eyeballs.
As with Idol, MasterChef brings together scores of ‘regular’ people – ie. cooking amateurs – and pits them against each other in tough challenges that will see one contestant rise as the cream of the crop. The format, created by Franc Roddam and Shine TV, is distributed internationally through Shine International.
Adeline Ramage Rooney, VP programs and development for One Potato Two Potato and an EP on the show, says that bringing a big character like Ramsay to the format ‘gives the show a very different vibe. It is perhaps a little less ‘touchy-feely’ than the UK and Australian versions.’
Beyond the addition of Ramsay as lead judge, joined on the panel by restaurateur Joe Bastianich and chef Graham Elliot, another key difference between the American edition and its Australian and UK counterparts is the volume of the series itself. In those territories, MasterChef plays as a strip and airs every night over several weeks. For the U.S., the series’ first three episodes will be an hour-long each, with the final five being two-hour installments. Fifty contestants from across the U.S. figure in this first season.
‘We’ve had to logistically play with the eliminations and how many contestants we have and so forth, but we’ve tried to stay true to the format,’ says Reveille managing director Howard T. Owens, who, with Reveille colleague Mark Koops, also executive produces the U.S. version. In addition to Adeline Ramage Rooney, Owens and Koops, the list of EPs includes Shine CEO Elisabeth Murdoch, Roddam, Ramsay and One Potato Two Potato MD Pat Llewellyn and 3Ball’s JD Roth and Todd Nelson.
Ramage Rooney says the nature of the challenges was also amped up in order to set MasterChef apart from other food competition fare. ‘We supersized the challenges to epic proportions,’ she says. ‘For example, [we had] a challenge where the contestants have to feed literally hundreds of marines and their families in a huge beach party. We had tanks, helicopters, gunfire, all sorts. It felt like the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan.’
Care was also taken to ensure that the U.S. version of MasterChef would also be credible to the foodies. Ramsay’s co-judges come with impressive credentials: Ramage Rooney points out that Elliot is the youngest four-star chef in America, and Bastianich owns over 20 of the country’s top Italian restaurants. Still, with Ramsay having spearheaded two top cooking shows that transplanted from the UK to the U.S., hopes are high that lightning will strike three times.
‘Nobody knows how to eke drama and story out of food like Gordon,’ says Ramage Rooney. ‘He is a master, constantly coming up with brilliant ideas and solutions to make the shows better. As everyone knows, he’s a perfectionist. He doesn’t want to be involved in anything that isn’t perfect.’
‘We’ve tried to learn about the contestants through the evolution of their cooking, involve the chefs and when in doubt, follow the story of food,’ says Owens. ‘There’s a real narrative to a recipe, or creating a crème brulée from scratch.’