As Fox's schedule imploded last fall, the network found itself with an enormous hole to fill: Tuesdays at 8 p.m. where reality misfire Utopia (one of its four freshman flops) had sunk to a 0.8 rating in adults 18-49. To stop the bleeding, the network tapped the only fall show left in its arsenal, MasterChef Junior, which had been set for Fridays. "We were anxious, but flattered," said Adeline Ramage Rooney, the show's executive producer, of the high-profile move. "They obviously saw there was an opportunity to take a gamble on it, and it seemed to pay off."
Indeed, the series—in which kid chefs between 8 and 13 compete for Gordon Ramsay and other celebrity judges to win a $100,000 prize—was one of Fox's only fall shows to outperform expectations. Its 1.8 debut 18-49 rating more than doubled Utopia's puny numbers—and the show maintained a 1.7 average for both Season 2 and winter's Season 3 (up from Season 1's 1.4 in fall 2013), drawing more viewers than even the regular MasterChef. "The preservation of our Tuesday audience was very important, and MasterChef Junior helped us stabilize the night," said David Madden, president, Fox Entertainment.
Ramage Rooney, who also executive produces MasterChef (its sixth season just kicked off), said she and Ramsay were inspired to create MasterChef Junior because "the adult version of MasterChef really seemed to capture a family audience and to get more kids into cooking. There's quite a lack of co-viewing shows that parents and kids can sit down to together."
The show's family appeal also is a draw for advertisers. "It's a show that ranks high across several different demographics"—including adults 18-49, women 18-49 and kids 2-17—"so it serves a lot of advertisers," said Sam Armando, svp, director of strategy, SMGx. "You won't find one advertiser that says it's the best property for them, but you'll find a lot of different advertisers that find it useful." Its acclaim goes far beyond U.S. audiences. Local versions of MasterChef Junior are now produced in 23 other countries.
That popularity is a far cry from 2003, when Fox tried to capitalize on the American Idol tsunami with a kid-sized spinoff, called American Juniors, which never made it to Season 2. "That kids hook will bring people to the screen for this first episode, and then it's the show itself that will make people return," said Armando. "The content has to be appealing." (Food Network has also found success with a pair of children-themed shows, Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off and Kids Baking Championship, while La Voz Kids, Telemundo's junior version of The Voice, is also performing well in its third season.)
MasterChef Junior will continue to be an important asset for Fox this fall as the network tries to rise from fourth place in 18-49. While the network hopes its new shows like Scream Queens and Minority Report catch on, "you need those reliable, returning shows to give you that stable audience," said Armando.
For now, Fox has returned the show to Fridays for fall, which pleases Ramage Rooney. "Friday night is better for kids. They don't have school the next day and parents are happier for them to stay up and watch," she said. But those plans could change if the network needs another fall savior, said Madden. "MasterChef Junior is certainly a show we'd consider moving, given how reliable it's been for us," he said.