MasterChef set a record last night many in the Australian media thought they’d never see: a Free To Air TV program rating its socks off and setting an all time record in these days of Pay TV, YouTube, Twitter, the internet and Facebook.

None of the so-called new media, Pay TV, or the internet, can assemble such a huge audience in such quick time at such a cheap cost: completely exceeding even the wildest forecast, close to 5 million people, or around 23% of the entire Australian population, watched the winner announced.

MasterChef finished ahead of Ten’s Australian Idol finales of 2003 (3.3 million) and 2004 (3.35 million) and the 2003 auction of The Block (3.11 million) on Nine. It was also bigger than any regular AFL, NRL or State of Origin game. In fact, the 3.745 million comfortably exceeds the audiences in metro and regional Australia for the AFL grand final, which is close to the top of the list in most years.

This comes at a time when the TV industry is struggling and Ten is doing it tough with its parent in Canada broke and only being kept alive by the generosity of its creditors who don’t want to face massive multi-million dollar losses on their $C4 billion of debt.

These ratings are the stuff of TV legends. Pay TV must be eating their tiny hearts out because MasterChef from the UK has never had the same profile on Foxtel and no one there thought to make a local version.

In metro markets 3.745 million people watched Julie announced as the winner in the last 30 minutes, while 3.313 million had watched the first 90 minutes of the final night and its trio of tests, starting with a taste test that exposed nerves in the two finalists, Julie and Poh. A peak audience of 4.11 million viewers tuned in to watch the Central Coast mum named Australia’s first MasterChef in the five metro markets of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.

All up, the first 90 minutes of Masterchef delivered a combined average audience of 4.4 million viewers ( including 1.137 million in regional areas) while the final half hour delivered 4.9 million viewers across Australia (around 1.22 million in regional Australia). Melbourne had the best audience, 1.285 million, Sydney 1.0003 million, Brisbane 620,000, Adelaide, 385,000 and Perth, 453,000. More than 1.17 million people watched the first 90 minutes of the program in Melbourne alone. They love their cooking down there.

Some in TV reckon it’s Number Three in the all time lists. It’s not. The two claimed to be ahead of it (forgetting the Olympics in Sydney on Seven in 2000) were the Hewitt-Safin Australian Open final in 2005 with 4.04 million and the 2003 Rugby World Cup final when England beat Australia — 4. 01 million. Both are sport, of limited interest in this country; the Open tennis was out of ratings, the Rugby here in Australia in late 2003 at the end of ratings.

I reckon MasterChef is number one and the most watched program on Australian TV, certainly the most watched Australian program on TV. The previous biggest audience for an Australian program was an ep of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in August 2000 with 3.56 million people on Nine.

Now for the Celebrity version, as there has to be. But I would’ve followed the route Ten has taken with The Biggest Loser: one series a year on the understanding that less is more. Idol, Big Brother and other reality programs have been brought down by viewer familiarity, and that could strike with MasterChef next year.

At the moment Masterchef is produced in Australia by Fremantle Media under a licence from Shine, Elisabeth Murdoch’s production company. Shine is setting up in Australia from early 2010 with Mark and Carl Fennessy brothers running things. They used to run Fremantle here. There is speculation that the rights to MasterChef could become available if Shine become available. That’s unclear. Ten says no, but others in the TV industry say Ten can’t resign with Fremantle unless it gets Shine on board as well. Shine might demand a higher licence fee after the huge success of the local season.

Now for a week without MasterChef and life will be very much colder for Ten. They might get the first chill tonight at 7pm with the new program called The 7pm Project, which, from the “sneak peaks” looks and sounds a lot like what FM breakfast radio teams sound and must look like: and it’s all very Melbourne. It’s one of a number of new programs airing this week of doubtful quality.

Seven starts The World’s Strictest Parents at 7.30pm Wednesday night, up against Australia’s Perfect Couple on Nine. Tuesday night is probably this year’s Wipeout/Hole In The Wall called Dance Your Ass Off: it combines The Biggest Loser and So You Think You Can Dance. Thursday evening Seven returns The Amazing Race at 7.30pm. At 8.30pm we get Double Take and at 9pm we get TV Burp. Both sound terrible, but both might have some life in them. Certainly there seems to be more upside in these than in Ten’s 7pm Project. Will Double Take/TV Burp prove to be inspired by The Chaser?