Rise of online food critic

Whether we love them, or love to hate them, outrageous and outspoken reality TV characters have gripped our imagination since Perth's Sara-Marie Fedele bum-danced on the first series of Big Brother.

Not long afterwards, restaurant chefs became household names, while shows such as MasterChef were ratings bonanzas, igniting the passions of foodies everywhere.

Enter My Kitchen Rules - a show that has celebrity chefs mixed in with serious cooks and big reality TV-style personalities - a recipe that was always going to get tongues wagging. Factor in the rise of social media sites from Facebook to Twitter and Instagram, and it's the perfect viewing storm.

Murdoch University cultural sociologist Barbara Evers makes a career out of studying the dynamics of food shows and believes viewers and contestants alike understand that it's a game, and that the two need each other to make the show a success.

"The question in viewers' minds is often whether the participants are 'real' or just putting on an act and more importantly, whether they are real cooks," Dr Evers said. "Now with social media thrown in, we all get to be instant food critics as well as cooks. The popularity of sites like Urbanspoon, where we get to rate and review food, speak for themselves.

"We live our lives online, and when it comes time to relax after the working day is done, we are straight out of the kitchen and on to the couch with our iPads ready to pass comment. We love drama and the contest element but most of all we want some excitement in unexciting times."

Dr Evers said the show's creators and producers had a very clever concept, and their use of the Twitter ticker allowing viewers to participate enhanced the experience for fans.

"As consumers we know that characters are sometimes created through the editing process and that we're being egged on by these devices but we want to get sucked in by it," she said. "Part of the reason that we watch is that we're allowed to participate, we love to see ourselves as part of the equation."

Viewers often felt comfortable in participating from a distance with no real consequences, which sometimes gave rise to nasty online comments.

This season alone, WA contestants Chloe James and Kelly Ramsay have endured a litany of taunts and barbs, some about their cooking ability, but most about their controversial comments and ongoing rivalry with twins Vikki and Helena Moursellas.

It's the reason the globe-trotting pair grabbed the lions' share of Twitter conversations, at 27 per cent, after the instant restaurant rounds.

Co-executive producer Evan Wilkes said social media had offered viewers a virtual water cooler conversation that could be had with total strangers from the comfort of their own lounge room.

The show's Twitter conversation had grown 15 per cent with every series.

"This year we gave the contestant hashtags - it was very deliberate so that people could follow their favourite team," Mr Wilkes said.

"The way people watch TV has changed - they would like their voice to be heard and Twitter is an immediate way to offer an opinion. The show is popular for a start but once you add the social media element, it takes on a life of its own.

"It's an easy show to engage with - we all cook at some point, so we feel that we can make comment. We've all cooked in our homes and had dinner parties. But once the contestants get into those kitchens in front of the cameras, it's a much harder prospect, I can assure you.

"It's unfortunate that some bullying of the contestants does occur but we do tell them about social media and remind them that you can be the most loved and talented person in the world and someone will always find something to say about you."

Dr Evers said worse than being talked about, was not being talked about.

Connie Clarke

'We all cook at some point, so we feel that we can make comment.'

The West Australian

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