Montage: Toby Wilkinson/The West Australian

My Kitchen Rules is the cooking show that has much of Australia talking and tweeting from 7.30pm Monday to Thursday. It has dominated ratings since season four premiered on January 28 and its outspoken contestants have been a staple feature of women's magazines, news and gossip pages, television current affairs programs and morning radio.

What's perhaps more significant is that My Kitchen Rules is an Australian-produced program created in-house by the Seven Network, albeit one developed in response to the success of Ten's original kitchen juggernaut, MasterChef: Australia, itself based on a British format.

Most TV critics thought Ten was crazy to launch a nightly prime- time cooking show in 2009 but MasterChef proved a runaway ratings hit.

While most reality shows such as Big Brother, The X Factor and The Voice are licensed from international production houses at a cost running into many millions, My Kitchen Rules was conceived by a team of about six people. Up to 150 have worked on the current series which, based on OzTAM overnight figures, is regularly attracting more than 2 million viewers in the five metro capital cities a night, around double its competition.

Seven development executives were keenly watching MasterChef's success and found the recipe for a cooking show ripe for a reboot in their own archives - the 2004 and 2005 hit series My Restaurant Rules, where couples battled it out to open and run their own successful restaurant.

"We were very proud of My Restaurant Rules which we invented ourselves," said Seven Network production director Brad Lyons. "When the food explosion hit we realised we had to get into that space and that we had heritage with My Restaurant Rules.

"The two great things were the State-based competition and the couples because you get that dynamic between the couples."

My Kitchen Rules executive producer Rikkie Proost has a long history of working on reality television shows in Australia and South Africa including Big Brother and The Amazing Race. He was one of those who helped develop the show and has steered it to the monster hit of this season.

"It was a slow burner MKR, it was a very modest little show in the beginning and I'd like to think we have always reminded ourselves of that, all the way through," says Proost. "It is very similar to where it began; we have never changed the format, we have never thrown the baby out with the bath water, we have kept the essence the same and added to it and added to it."

Hosted by chefs Manu Feildel and Pete Evans, My Kitchen Rules launched last month to an average five-city metro audience of 1.5 million and by last week had a season average of 1.973 million viewers (based on OzTAM consolidated data to February 14 and overnight from February 15 to 21) well up on the 2010 to 2012 combined season average of 1.6 million.

MasterChef: The Professionals, which launched on Ten a week before My Kitchen Rules and airs against it two out its three nights, had by comparison clocked up a season average of 858,000 viewers.

"MasterChef is a brilliant show and is a beautifully, fine-crafted production," says Proost.

"It is a very different production to ours and I think that is what we realised this year - it is not a divide and conquer kind of option between MKR and MasterChef anymore. It is a very different show and audiences will tune in for different reasons."

My Kitchen Rules had barely been on air a week and already contestants such as "Spice Girls" Jessie Khan and Biswa Kamila were polarising audiences and fellow contestants with their outspoken behaviour. Things heated up again last week with the arrival of the three "gatecrasher" teams. Which begs the question - are viewers watching MKR for the cooking or the personality clashes?

"That's the million-dollar question, you would think if people wanted to tune in for cooking they would be tuning in to other shows," says Proost. "I'd like to think personality has a part to play in it. Also I think the whole cooking phenomenon bubble kind of burst.

"It was massive for two, almost three years and then the audience wanted something new and different.

"We needed to progress the format, so we did focus a lot more on story, we did focus a lot more on character, we made the show as multidimensional as possible with layers and layers and layers so various audiences can enjoy it for various reasons."

Lyons likens the interest in My Kitchen Rules to Australia's enduring love affair with sport.

"People get very passionate about the people they like. It's a bit like if you are a West Coast supporter, you don't want to see Collingwood win."

While viewers have been quick to voice their disdain for contestants such as Khan and Kamila and eliminated WA mother and daughter Lisa and Candice Clarke, they were equally quick to embrace down-to-earth Tasmanian father and son Mick and Matt Newell.

"He's an abalone diver, you think, he's a bit of a rough diamond, can he actually cook," explains Lyons of casting the pair.

"And there's the father-son combination which we hadn't really experienced before. They were just generally warm and funny, too. We also want to make sure there are a few laughs in the show.

"Obviously, you can't cast exactly the same type of people or else it would get boring pretty quickly. You try to (one) represent a good cross-section of Australia; (two) look for people with various personalities. It is a vital part of the show. But quite often someone will surprise and pop up and be a different sort of character than you expected."

Emma Ashton of Australia's leading reality TV blog Reality Ravings says My Kitchen Rules has followed the trend of giving viewers characters they love to hate.

"My Kitchen Rules had a formula last year of hooking us in with the villains and then we started getting favourites and talking about the cooking later in the series," she says. "I suspect the same thing will occur this season. In fact one of the eventual winners last year, Jennifer, started off as a villain but her edit was softened up towards the end of the series so viewers could start to like her."

Proost says social media has played a huge part in the success of My Kitchen Rules.

"You have to be part of the show, live, watching it go to air, to be part of the conversation," he says.

"If not you're being left behind I think that is a huge part of the success, not only of MKR but of all the shows that have a buzz happening within social media."

My Kitchen Rules airs Monday to Thursday at 7.30pm on Seven/GWN7.

The West Australian

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