MasterChef rides gravy train, brings home serious bacon for TVNZ

MasterChef drew plenty of Kiwi eyeballs in its first season last year. And it also drew plenty of advertiser dollars, whether during the ad breaks or, increasingly, during the show itself through product placement. So, with estimates putting the worth of the Australian version of the show and its associated enterprises at $100 million, how much are Kiwi brands paying to be involved? Does such obvious commercial involvement affect the credibility of the show? And how did the new season launch fare in the ratings?

As far as the ratings go, MasterChef lured 404,420 on Sunday night for a 10.0 share of the 5+ audience, down from 10.9 the year before. The top rating show of the night was North with 621,950. MasterChef was beaten by the movie on TV2 (10.6) and TV3’s House wasn’t far away on 8.5.

Jeremy O’Brien, TVNZ’s general manager, programme partnerships, says considering the show was on a new day and in a new timeslot, the first episode achieved strong audience numbers, with 9.1 against the 25-54 demographic. But, as Throng pointed out, last year it was a 9.4.

“Not a big drop but when you compare last year’s ratings on TV3, it was a one horse race with TV3 only managing a 4.3 in the 5+ and a 5.1 in 25-54.”

O’Brien says the expectations for the show are in line with the performance of the first New Zealand series and the series in Australia and he believes audiences will grow as the series progresses.

In what was either an example of well-planned programming or dumb luck, The Gruen Transfer episode that played on Sunday night on TV3 was all about the commercial aspects of MasterChef Australia. Over 100 brands—nine major sponsors and 91 partners—paid an estimated $40 million to be associated with the show, which, as the panelists said, is an advertiser’s dream because it is based entirely on consumption. And because endorsements, either from friends or in editorial form, are proven to be more effective than advertising, the in-show commercial opportunities have proven extremely attractive.

O’Brien says MasterChef is unique in that the nature of the series as a celebration of food and the art of cooking lends itself to relevant product integration without impacting on the editorial quality and viewer enjoyment.

“Strong sponsor partnerships have meant that the MasterChef experience lives on well outside of the programme timeslot and Countdown is a great example of a partner that has brought the experience to life in-store and across their promotional activity to the benefit of their customers, who also happen to be our viewers. When the sponsor partners are relevant to the content and align with the production values of the programme, there are no credibility issues. We’ve got leading New Zealand food and food preparation brands such as Countdown, Fisher & Paykel, Mainland, Campbells and SunRice partnered with the leading food and food preparation programme in the market. It’s a win win.”

But being so overtly commercial does raise some tricky credibility and editorial issues, like the incident involving Matt Preston and the handee towel or the contestants who found the filo pastry bought from main sponsor Coles was past its expiry date (the scene was left in, presumably to the chagrin of Coles).

Watching the new season launch on Sunday night, the contestant who needed to rush to his nearest Countdown because he forgot the soy sauce seemed a little suspicious. But Imagination Television’s Darryl McEwen, the executive producer of MasterChef, was at pains to point out he’s had “absolutely no issues with sponsors” during filming.

McEwen wouldn’t comment on the cost of production or any of the commercial arrangements. But with so much ‘integration’ and, as yet, no noticeable backlash from viewers, it’s fair to say it is a fairly amazing advertising property. And the sponsorship seems to work: research commissioned by TVNZ last year showed 73 percent of MasterChef viewers were aware of Countdown as a principal sponsor of the series last year. Not surprisingly, it’s adding to its already extensive marketing spending of late and is back in the sponsorship hotseat in 2011, presumably for a larger fee.

No-one from Progressive or its agency Ogilvy could be reached for comment and even if they were reached, they undoubtedly wouldn’t talk about how much was paid for major sponsorship rights. But estimates from media deep throats put the figure at around $250,000-$300,000, which takes into account an estimated 50 percent discount and includes regular air time, open/close credits and the clock featuring in all 13 episodes.

As for the secondary sponsors, such as Stevens, it is estimated the figure would be closer to $100,000, of which around $40,000 would be made up by product placement fees for each episode (feel free to add your own sweepstake figures to the comment wall).

Advertisers who advertised during first episode of MasterChef NZ in 2011-02-22. Source: Nielsen

O’Brien says details of the commercial arrangements with sponsors are confidential. But he did say MasterChef as a series is a strong commercial success for TV ONE, “due to its ability to bring the partners brand values to life in real and relevant ways for the audience”.

“We’ve worked hard with our partners to build value into the association by providing benefits within the programme and also outside of the programme, such as the use of off-air licences to enable in-store promotional activation,” he says.

Ben Liebmann, the managing director of Shine360 (Shine owns the MasterChef format internationally) says broadcast sponsorship and product placement are rights controlled by TVNZ, production rights are granted by Shine to Imagination Television and ancillary rights are represented by FremantleMedia Enterprises (FME) on behalf of Shine.

“FME have done a number of deals including both extending broadcast sponsorships off-screen, and via license of official merchandise, including the publishing deal with Random House. TVNZ and Imagination will need to comment on the other areas,” he says.

It’s difficult to put a figure on what the New Zealand show is worth. And it’s difficult to compare the two shows, simply because Australia has a much larger population, the show runs five nights a week and a range of MasterChef merchandise, including cook books and a very popular magazine, are produced in that market. Based on reports from FreemantleMedia, a 30-second ad spot in last season’s MasterChef Australia went for $70,000, “the most expensive for a nightly programme by around $30,000”, which, according to our deepthroat, could be around ten times TVNZ’s rate.

But what is similar is the lure of the show to advertisers. And, as more reality-based TV shows—or even shows like Modern Family—look for commercial partners to shore up the accounts, and as consumers become ever more cynical of advertising that actually runs in the ad breaks, brand integration is a trend that looks set to continue.

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