Inside Ten’s sudden MasterChef exodus
The future of long-running reality television juggernaut MasterChef hangs in the balance, after its three judges exited over a contract dispute amid a damaging PR disaster.
Network 10 would prefer headlines about its flagship show focus on last night's finale but instead they're devoted to the abrupt departure of George Calombaris, Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan.
Calombaris has been at the centre of scandal since a Fair Work investigation last week concluded the extent of his underpayment of more than 500 staff across his restaurant empire totalled more than $7.8 million.
His company, Made Establishment, received just a $200,000 fine, which unions and critics labelled inadequate, and led to increasingly vocal calls for his sacking.
Late Monday night, a spokeswoman for Ten told news.com.au the station stood by Calombaris and fully supported his future with MasterChef.
But less than 24 hours later, he, Preston and Mehigan are gone after reportedly demanding a 40 per cent increase on their $1 million per season salaries.
"Despite months of negotiation, Ten has not been able to reach commercial agreement that was satisfactory to Matt, Gary and George," the network's CEO Paul Anderson said.
'DECISION MADE HOURS AGO'
So sudden was the decision that senior production insiders who news.com.au has spoken to were unaware of the trio's exits.
"I don't think it'll be the same," one shocked staffer said.
It's understood Calombaris, Preston and Mehigan were only delivered the news that the network had walked away from negotiations just before midday.
Although, the current season of the show has sparked broad discussions both at the network and inside the show's production company, Endemol Shine Australia, about the need for change.
Ratings have been down significantly on previous successful years and news.com.au is told that Ten was nervous.
"Although, the last time they shook things up it was a disaster," the source said.
Several spin-offs of the show in its early years diluted MasterChef's strength, which led to dramatic format changes that focused more on drama between contestants than food.
When ratings plunged further, the show was taken back to its roots and pure cooking focus, leading to an audience revival.
"But when the ratings slid again this year, the conversation restarted."
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Ten has committed to a 12th season of the show to air in 2020, and pre-production is slated to commence within the next three months.
But will an entirely new judging panel resonate after more than a decade of stability from the same three familiar faces?
TV Tonight editor David Knox believes a refresh after so long could be beneficial for MasterChef in the long run.
"To have had the same judges for 11 seasons is pretty extraordinary anyway so a refresh was inevitable at some point," Knox told news.com.au.
"They have plenty of alumni to choose from. Some shows never recover from a cast change and others never look back."
Advertising guru Dee Madigan, boss at the agency Campaign Edge, believes the franchise will survive with an entirely new judging line-up.
"I would have thought the brand and format is big enough to survive them leaving but the brand damage from Calombaris (staying) would have been pretty bad," Ms Madigan told news.com.au.
Knox agreed and said Ten was rapidly approaching a point where its star would become too big a liability to support.
Although, the timing of today's bombshell is unprecedented, he said.
"It's definitely unusual to announce the departure of such pivotal talent just hours before a grand finale, and there's clearly more going on in the kitchen than we know today," he said.
In the end, it was not the scandal surrounding Calombaris underpaying his staff by almost $8 million that cost the celebrity chef his job.
It was his demand, and the demands of his co-stars, for a massive pay rise.
"Wanting salary increases of 40 per cent when they're on over a million dollars is nuts," Madigan said.
Attention will now inevitably turn to who might replace the trio, who have been with the show for each of its 11 seasons.
There are plenty of former contestants who've gone on to achieve professional success who could be strong contenders.
"A woman in there would be nice," Madigan said.