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It was meant to be a day of excitement and celebration, as special guest Jamie Oliver helped launch a new season of MasterChef Australia with a bang. Instead, it was dominated by the news that one of the show’s three hosts, the charismatic Scottish-born chef and restaurateur Jock Zonfrillo, was dead.

Suddenly, a launch many months in the planning was out the window. The immediate future of Network 10’s most important, expensive, and long-running franchise was up in the air.

Jock Zonfrillo, who joined the MasterChef team in 2019, died in Melbourne on Sunday, aged 46.Credit: Renee Nowytarger

What was clear was that the show would not air on Monday night at all, nor on any other night this week out of respect for the passing of a man who had, just a day earlier, been posting excitedly on his social media channels about what lay in store.

In its place was reality show The Bridge, which screened on Paramount+ last year and was rush released into the schedule for its free-to-air debut as an emergency stop-gap on Monday.

The question now for broadcaster Network 10 is what to do next? Does MasterChef come back next week? Does it need to allow a little longer for viewers, advertisers and commentators to come to terms with the shock demise of Zonfrillo? Do the episodes need to be tweaked in the wake of that unforeseen and terrible circumstance? Can it be aired at all?

Whatever happens from here, The Bridge is no long-term solution. For a start, the entire first season consists of just six hour-long episodes. Ten has sliced and diced them to allow them to be screened over four nights this week, filling the 90-odd minutes allocated in the schedule to MasterChef. By Thursday, it will be done and dusted.

Nor did it strike a nerve with viewers who may have been reluctant to shift their affections so readily at such short notice, and with zero promotion to entice them. Overnight audience figures from OzTam show just 173,000 metro-city viewers, and 223,000 nationally, tuned in. The Project’s second half hour, which immediately preceded it and included coverage of Zonfrillo’s death, was watched by 447,000 metro viewers, and 564,000 nationally, meaning more than half of those who had been watching Ten between 7pm and 7.30pm simply chose not to cross The Bridge.

Ten drafted in reality show The Bridge at short notice as it decided not to launch MasterChef this week as planned. Credit: Nigel Wright

At least this year’s entire season of MasterChef, including the finale, has already been shot. Production wrapped last month, and while editing is still under way, everything they need for a full season is in the can.

Of course, not everything that was shot might now be deemed appropriate to screen. A close eye will be cast in the edit suite over anything that was said or shown on screen just in case it might suddenly take on a different, accidentally darker hue following Zonfrillo’s death. That will likely apply to the episodes already locked off, as well as those that are still in progress.

Ten is understood to be in close contact with Zonfrillo’s family, which includes Lauren Fried, his wife and mother of the youngest two of his four children. Whatever approach it takes to the show now will need to meet with their approval and support. It’s a matter of both sensitivity and brand management.

It is almost inconceivable though that Ten would not air MasterChef. It occupies a massive chunk of its prime-time schedule, an anchor for around three months of the year. It is its most valuable asset. It is bound up with advertising, sponsorship, marketing and events revenue in the tens of millions of dollars.

Jamie Oliver was drafted in to launch this season, Secrets and Surprises, with a bang.

But when it puts the show to air, and in what form, is less certain. Leaving it a few weeks, maybe a little more, would allow it to find clear air on the other side of the initial shock, and the funeral. But that would also put it further away from the promotional campaign that now, presumably, must stop. Starting the season next week would allow it to benefit from the wind in the sails of the work that had already been done to let audiences know it was coming, as well as the unexpected and unwelcome second wind of the news. Leaving it longer risks launching it to an audience that has already moved on elsewhere.

Does the show need to address Zonfrillo’s death directly? Almost certainly. Co-hosts Melissa Leong and Andy Allen might record a tribute or an introduction/farewell, though that might be an unbearable thing to ask of them right now. Perhaps an introductory title card might be appropriate.

And what of that most important ingredient for any television show, the viewers? Will they tune in as a mark of respect or, if they have never watched before, to see what was so special about this guy? Or will they simply find the very idea of screening it now too ghoulish to contemplate?

None of this is to diminish the enormous loss of Jock Zonfrillo to those who knew, loved and respected him best. Their pain will be enormous, and should be respected. But it’s worth acknowledging that the challenges for Ten are real too, and far from easily resolved.

Find more of the author’s work here. Email him at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin.

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