Has Channel 10 made a massive MasterChef mistake?
They say you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone, and that's surely the feeling going around the Channel 10 offices right now.
Having parted ways with MasterChef stars Matt Preston, George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan this week, Ten management deserve points for saying goodbye to the trio after 11 seasons due to a reported request for a 40 per cent pay increase. Seems more than a bit ambitious - indeed, many would say greedy - at a time when the show's ratings have flatlined, advertising dollars are scarce, and Calombaris is in a world of pain over reports his restaurants underpaid hundreds of staff.
"Ten has not been able to reach a commercial agreement that was satisfactory to Matt, Gary and George," Ten CEO Paul Anderson said. "Australia is full of remarkable cooking talent and we can't wait to introduce another group, and the next generation of exceptional judges in season 12 of MasterChef Australia next year."
The question is, has Channel 10 just made a massive mistake?
In considering what the Channel will do and where the show will go next, two major issues arise.
Firstly, most local and international celebrity chefs that routinely appear on the show and help boost ratings are all mates with Preston, Calombaris and Mehigan. Will the likes of Heston Blumenthal, Nigella Lawson and Shannon Bennett still want to appear on the 12th season of the show without that trio? Maybe money will talk and they can be lured back, but then again, maybe they won't feel as motivated to visit with a new bunch of judges on board.
The second issue is that unlike many other reality television shows, Preston, Calombaris and Mehigan weren't just judges on MasterChef, they were also the hosts.
Now, Channel 10 not only has to find the "next generation of exceptional judges," but also judges who can host. And that's no easy task.
So who could do it? The show's alumni are the best bets - Poh Ling Yeoh, Adam Liaw, Justine Schofield, Julie Goodwin and Hayden Quinn have all have hosted their own shows and have the talent, but whether they have the ability to capture and keep audiences the way that the original line-up did is impossible to know before risking it all and diving in.
On Tuesday night, just 992,000 people tuned in to watch Larissa Takchi take home the win of the season. That's almost 400,000 viewers less than the same episode just a year before. In 2010, 3.692 million people tuned in for the finale.
So maybe the time is right for a refresh. But you only have to look at the jettisoning of Karl Stefanovic from Today to see how things can go wrong, and how Channel 10 should tread carefully.
Like Calombaris, Stefanovic was the centre of bad press thanks to his messy divorce and splashy Mexican wedding. Nine eventually bit the bullet and dropped him thinking that would appease the masses, but since then Today's ratings have taken a massive tumble and there's no sign of improvement in sight.
So where to for Preston, Calombaris and Mehigan from here? Have they cooked their goose and their careers because of pay demands or will they easily find other television work?
There's no doubt that Ten has taken a big risk in letting the powerful trio go. At a time when a lot of its shows have crashed and burned, MasterChef has provided stable ratings for the network night in and night out for years.
And while new judges could give the show the boost it needs but it could just as easily backfire.
Preston, Calombaris and Mehigan are a bit like the three musketeers of Australian television and right now they're likely sitting back and saying "all for one and one for all".
Colin Vickery is a television and entertainment writer.