Can a Masterchef menu help Ten rise again?

With a Masterchef spinoff starting on Sunday and some key executive positions filled, there is reason anew for hope at Ten. This weekend's ratings will tell us a lot about the network's 2013 prospects.

Spirits would be high at Ten this week. Not only has James Warburton filled the long-standing digital vacancy at the station, but the year proper kicks off for Ten on Sunday night with the premiere of the new Masterchef format, The Professionals.

These developments come at a time when both are urgently needed. Ratings-wise Ten has had a limp start to 2013. In the first few weeks of January of 2012, Ten was seeing free-to-air viewership shares on a weeknight across its three channels of anything between 19 to 21 per cent; on Wednesday this week it had a share of 16.5 per cent and on Monday it was lower at 14.6 per cent. The primary channel is being comfortably beaten by Nine, with daylight between it and leader Seven. This result isn’t entirely unexpected but is a decline year-on-year. Ten's summer programming is not strong, and aside from its 5pm news bulletin it's not having too many positive stories to report.

In launching Masterchef Professionals this Sunday night, Ten is following a strategy similar to the one it pursued in 2012 with the launch of 'Super Sunday'. Super Sunday saw Ten introduce a stack of new programming on one of Tennis’s biggest nights – including New Girl, Homeland, the revamped Young Talent Time and first run Modern Family. The result was solid – all four drew over one million viewers. Ten had four shows in the top 10 that night. Aside from YTT, the remainder continued to be strong performers for Ten throughout 2012.

This Sunday is a little different. Ten is not promoting a suite of new programming. It is focusing purely on Masterchef and its featured star, Marco Pierre White. Channel Nine has one day international lined up for Sunday afternoon and evening and the draw for the tennis on Sunday night has not been released, but ratings generally appear down so far. It is hard to predict what night Seven will deliver in 2013 without knowing the match up.

My guess is Ten will be hoping for 1.3 million to 1.4 million viewers for the opening of Masterchef but would be satisfied with anything over 1.1 million, which is likely to keep advertisers happy and meet any ratings performance obligations that may be attached to the sponsorship deals. The promotion of the show has been strong – Pierre White has been well promoted as the villain – but Ten would have wished for a stronger ratings basis for its in-house promos over the past three weeks.

With only two core hosts and professional chefs replacing amateurs, the format has changed significantly from last year. The only concern many have is how the public will relate to a bunch of professional chefs being schooled by a celebrity who, for all intents and purposes, is not that well known outside culinary circles in this territory. Masterchef traded strongly off being feel-good and relatable; it is unlikely it will stray from the feel-good storylines, but can mainstream Australia see enough of themselves in the competing professionals to attach to the format?

That is yet to be seen, and predicting the success or otherwise of TV programming is pure gambling. No one ever seems to know how a show will go before it airs, yet after one rates poorly everyone comes out saying ‘I told you so’. After week one of season one of Masterchef the experts were smugly condemning the show as a failure. The show went on to rate 3.5 million-plus for the finale and Masterchef became one of the most valuable consumer brands in the country.

Ten will be hoping the format resonates. A quick early win creates a positive go-to-market story with advertisers and agencies – one Ten hasn’t been able to tell in a while.

Masterchef's debut is the first ingredient in Ten’s 2013 rejuvenation, but a second and equally important area was filled this week when Ten announced Rebekah Horne as chief digital officer, a post that had remained unfilled for over 18 months. Horne comes to Ten from US social shopping site TopFloor, where she was launch chief executive. She is best known for her work at Myspace, which included stints as marketing director in Australia in 2006 before and as managing director. Her strong connections and networks are a real benefit for Ten, and she completes an exec roster which is certainly heavy on advertising experience. That is far from a negative thing. If Ten can recover some of its lost ratings ground, Warburton has an elite team that is well positioned to extract every possible cent available out of the TV advertising pool.

Meanwhile, it is unclear what digital strategy Ten will pursue. It is clear that Ten does lag behind its local competitors when it comes to the space. But in Warburton, Ten has a chief executive who is digitally savvy and experienced. When he was at Seven he also served as the company's chief digital officer – and played a central role in building the Yahoo!7 brand into the leading offering it is today. Either way, Ten needs to make some bold moves within the digital space relatively quickly to make up for years of inactivity.

And it needs some quick wins – starting this Sunday with Masterchef. You can bet come Monday morning there will only be one thing on the Warburton and his team's mind.

Ben Shepherd is a media and technology consultant. He blogs at Talking Digital.