Following the success of her MasterChef franchise, Rupert Murdoch’s second-eldest daughter, Elisabeth, is sharpening her knives to carve out a chunk of the Australian TV market, as the local arm of her production empire, Shine TV, prepares to unleash the mayhem of Iron Chef Australia.

Iron Chef Australia, a spin-off of the Japanese cult hit screened by SBS, will debut tomorrow on Channel Seven, and there’s no doubt the network will be betting the show’s arena-style antics deliver the same sort of ratings magic that MasterChef provided for rival Channel 10.

But behind the scenes it’s Murdoch’s Shine Australia that looks set to steal the show.

Murdoch started Shine TV after leaving UK pay-TV operator BskyB — owned by her media mogul father — in 2001. Since then, the production outfit has spread its wings far and wide with operations in France, Germany and Australia. The company posted an operating profit of £24.5 million last year compared to the £3.8 million in 2007. Revenue jumped to £238.7 million from £92 million during the period. It has also bought a host of independent production houses, such as Reveille, Kudos, Princess and Dragonfly and now boasts an impressive arsenal of shows, including Merlin, Ugly Betty, The Biggest Loser and of course MasterChef.

Shine, which holds the global rights to MasterChef, has sold the format to several European and Asian territories. And earlier this year it sealed a deal that will see MasterChef USA produced by Reveille in conjunction with Gordon Ramsay’s production house One Potato Two Potato, with Ramsay as host.

While it may be hard to find many in Australia who have not heard of MasterChef, what is less known is Murdoch’s involvement with the program. Shine sold the MasterChef format rights a couple of years ago to Fremantle, where TV veterans Mark and Carl Fennessy modified the format turning it into a media juggernaut. The Fennessys were poached by Murdoch in April last year to run her Aussie outfit Shine Australia.

Shine is set to regain the rights to MasterChef Australia after the next season, and once Fremantle loses its grip on the program it could be up for grabs for Channel Ten’s rivals Channel Seven and Nine Network, which have previously written large cheques to snatch hit shows.

The ratings success of MasterChef Australia — which commanded a 77% market share for its season finale, with an average audience of about 2 million viewers an episode, and proved popular enough to force the rescheduling of the federal election debate — has also spawned a substantial advertising deal with Coles, which only came on board a third of a way into the first series.

Mark Fennessy told Business Spectator that while it’s hard to put a dollar figure on the Coles deals it was certainly quite lucrative for both parties.

Coles saw a significant uplift in sales across the stores — especially in ingredients and products highlighted in the episodes — and has since extended its commitment to the program and its spin-offs for another two years.

Seven is running its own search for a strong sponsor for Iron Chef Australia, and Fennessy said that the network is close to announcing a deal that might be in the same ballpark as the Coles deal.

Steve Allen, managing director of Sydney media buying agency Fusion Strategy, says Shine TV will undoubtedly be the dominance player in the TV food space once it takes back MasterChef. While cooking programs are dime a dozen on the free-to-air networks and pay-TV, Shine will control the biggest names with the most appeal.

Seven is running Iron Chef in a prime 8:30pm slot and has recruited some of Australia’s best culinary talents — Guy Grossi, Neil Perry and Guillaume Brahimi — to play the part of the iron chefs. But it is difficult to say whether audiences will warm to a local version of the kitchen stadium and the gourmet athletics inside its confines.

However, Fennessy is trying to keep a lid on expectations, saying that Iron Chef’s format is quite different to MasterChef and despite the program’s cult status it may not have the same pulling power as MasterChef.

“We are hoping that the show is successful, it is a very unique format and a proven format, but is a very different show to MasterChef,” Fennessy says.

“I don’t believe either we or the Seven Network would expect to be as big as MasterChef, but you never know.”

Fennessy’s outlook is backed by Fusion’s Allen who says that while Iron Chef should draw respectable ratings it won’t be another MasterChef.

“I am not talking the program down, we do think it’s going to do fine but we don’ think it going to do remarkable numbers — forget two million, forget a million and a half,” Allen says.

But that won’t necessarily make Iron Chef a dud. Any program capable of drawing a million viewers in today’s fragmented TV environment will still be a money maker for Murdoch.

* This article originally appeared on Business Spectator.

Peter Fray

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