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Making Reality That Shines

Fox’s MasterChef ends its fifth season Monday night. The show was already the network’s top-rated series of the summer season, which ended Aug. 31, averaging a 2.4 rating among adults 18-49 in Nielsen live-plus-seven ratings—down 17% from the previous season, but still well outperforming new, high-profile summer scripted offering such as CBS’ Extant, ABC’s Black Box, NBC’s Night Shift and Fox’s own Gang Related.

Spinoff MasterChef Junior—like the original, featuring judges Gordong Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot—will premiere its second season in November. B&C spoke with Eden Gaha, president of unscripted for MasterChef producer Shine America about the endurance of reality franchises, Ramsay's ubiquity and how TV changed food

Do you think that television has changed the way people look at food?

I’d like to think it has. The kids are indeed exposed to much more. But certainly with Cooking Channel and Food Network and those shows, MasterChef and MasterChef Junior, Hell’s Kitchen, the proliferation of food shows has really shown people the process, pulled back the curtain about how things are done.

Reality television that features kids can draw controversy. When you were developing MasterChef Junior, were you conscious of not falling into the Kid Nation trap?

Obviously very mindful of falling into that world. For us, the first and most important thing was not to kiddy-it-up too much. We didn’t want multi-colored sets, multi-colored aprons. It needed to feel like the real show. It needed to feel like theses kids were walking into the stadium where the adults are. It was also important to us that they were subjected in a way to similar pressures as the adults. They have the same amount of time, they have the same three judges—although those three judges are all parents themselves. The three judges showed other sides of themselves, in many ways. They showed compassion.

Why has Gordon Ramsay become such an omnipresent television personality in the U.S.?

I think Gordon is authentic. Having worked with him and known him, that’s the guy that you meet. And he is so passionate about the food. He applies the pressure when needed and he puts his arm around someone when it’s wanted.

Do you ever worry about audiences getting tired of him or of him getting overexposed?

The research and the numbers would show that that’s not happening. Obviously Gordon is fantastic in all of the shows he does. And he manages to walk that line and be a different person in some cases on those shows as well. I think that Gordon is very careful about what he chooses and what he wants to do, and it has to show a different side to him, as well. I don’t think he would be doing the Hell’s Kitchen ranting on every single show. The range the man has as a television personality is amazing, and I think that’s why people accept new shows from him.

He announced in June that he would be ending [ITV and Optomen-produced] Kitchen Nightmares. Do you get a sense from him whether there might be a point at which he transitions out of doing so much television?

Our work with Gordon is really based around MasterChef and MasterChef Junior and we’re thrilled that he’s working with on that and that he’s very committed to that brand and to the potential further extension of that brand. So we’re very happy with where things are with Gordon right now.

MasterChef was one of a number of long-running unscripted programs that really kept the broadcast networks afloat this summer, even when they had highly touted scripted programming not performing as well. Why do audiences stick with these reality shows after so many years?

I think it’s important that it’s a show that’s built an audience up over a period of time, and the audiences feel like they can rely on it. It’s like an old friend. We also make The Biggest Loser and the same is true of those numbers. You develop the show along with the audience and you develop the show to keep them engaged. These shows have evolved in such a way that if you compared an episode from the first season to an episode of the current season, they wouldn’t look much alike, but that evolution happens gently along the way. I think the best reality shows do that, remain relevant to the audience.