Fox knew that its fall season was going to be awful—it’s now very clear why Kevin Reilly stepped down as Fox entertainment chairman just weeks after May upfronts—but the network can't have known it would be downright cataclysmic.
Four out of its five new series have already tanked. The network finally canceled its $50 million reality series Utopia on Sunday after the show pulled a miniscule 0.5 18-49 rating, and newbies Gracepoint and Red Band Society aren’t faring much better—production on Mulaney is reportedly shut down. So the network is turning to an unlikely source to salvage its terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad fall season: a bunch of kid chefs.
The second season of MasterChef Junior—the reality competition in which 16 budding chefs, ages 8 to 13, compete for a $100,000 grand prize—debuts Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET. It’s the time slot originally occupied by Utopia, which was airing on Tuesdays and Fridays at 8. As Utopia began hemorrhaging viewers, Fox tried to stop the bleeding on Oct. 1 by banishing Utopia to Fridays only and announcing that MasterChef Junior, which had been scheduled for a Friday debut later in fall, would instead be taking Utopia’s place on Tuesdays. And now the show will be airing on both nights; MasterChef Junior repeats will replace Utopia beginning on Friday.
Last season, the series averaged a 2.1 rating in 18-49, which is higher than every new show Fox currently airs between Tuesdays and Saturdays (except Gotham, of course), and several of the old ones: Sleepy Hollow, Bob's Burgers and Bones are all below the 2 mark.
The secret to the show’s success? "You draw them in with the shock and awe: 'Oh my God, these kids can cook!' And then you get sucked in because the stories are so great," explains Joe Bastianich, who judges MasterChef Junior alongside Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot. "And the kids are unfiltered, they’re honest, which really helps in the making of a good TV show."
"Good" or not, Fox entered the fall with low expectations for MasterChef Junior, which the network saw as a utility player at best. That all changed once Utopia, originally announced as a yearlong experiment ("the largest social experiment ever televised," proclaimed Fox), couldn’t even last two months.
Suddenly, MasterChef Junior has become Fox’s Hail Mary play for November sweeps. Bastianich says his show is up to the challenge. "Now we’re under big pressure," says Bastianich. "My prediction is that everyone will be pleasantly surprised."
After enduring a truly appalling fall season, Fox would give anything to be "pleasantly surprised" when it sees the show’s ratings on Wednesday.