Can we add MasterChef Australia to the list of programs that got away?

In the annals of Australian TV there are a few stories about networks rejecting programs that other networks subsequently picked up and made a hit.

Seven and Neighbours top the list. Seven thought it wouldn’t work and let it go; a desperate Ten swooped and the rest is history, including Kylie Minogue.

Then there’s Seinfeld: Nine had it through a production agreement, but thought it wouldn’t work, despite trying it in different timeslots, most of which were late in the evening (where The Sopranos and Six Feet Under languished.)

Ten swooped (desperate again) and the rest is history. In terms of the world, Seinfeld was a bigger hit, but in terms of Australia and sheer longevity, Neighbours wins.

Now there’s a new contender: MasterChef Australia. So who let it go?

According to industry reports, Nine’s CEO David Gyngell had the chance to option MasterChef, or commission a new program called HomeMade from Gyngell’s favourite producers, Julian Cress and David Barbour, who had the first very successful first series of The Block on their CVs, which had helped make Gyngell a hit at Nine in his first reign (before walking out in 2005).

Gyngell reportedly thought hard, but went for HomeMade, which faded from view after the first two eps. MasterChef started slowly and finished with the biggest non-sports audience in the history of Australian TV.

It’s not that MasterChef was unknown in Australia: it had been shown on Foxtel and that’s probably what lulled the networks into thinking that it wouldn’t be a big hit on Free To Air.

And why did Ten swoop? Desperation, not inspiration. It had canned Big Brother, Idol was working fitfully at the end of 2008 and the network and its senior managers were under pressure to get programs started for this year. Ten had millions of dollars from the budget of Big Brother and needed to commission new programs to use it up. Its Canadian parent was having financial problems and might have wondered why the $20 million or so left over from BB wasn’t being spent.

And there are now reports that David Gyngell has commissioned a 13-part MasterChef knock-off quickie for Nine. The producers? Julian Cress and David Barbour. Don’t remind them about The Chopping Block, 2008’s indifferent offering from the duo for Nine.

But MasterChef Australia needs some perspective: even though it got huge audiences, it has only been on for one season. It will have to be on air in 30 years to match Neighbours. Each week around 3 million plus people watch Neighbours on Ten at 6.30pm. Last week it was over 4 million. Apart from the finals, MasterChef was doing around 6-7 million for six nights on air.

Neighbours was an Australian program from the start: MasterChef is a UK format (controlled by Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine). Neighbours’ contribution to Australian cultural life will far exceed anything that MasterChef will bring.

Do you know of any other examples of the shows that got away?

Peter Fray

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