The Great British Bake Off. It’s the darling of the UK’s autumnal Wednesday evenings, a curiously charming crossbreed set at just the right temperature between Blue Peter warmth and the competitive heat of The Apprentice. Few have tried to resist it, fewer have succeeded, and with the show now into its sixth series it has truly become a national treasure, and a staple of modern British broadcast media. But with news breaking yesterday evening that contract negotiations spanning more than a year between the BBC and the show’s production company, Love Productions, had finally resulted in an end to their seven year partnership, what next for our most beloved proprietor of family friendly food porn?
Well, we know some things. No sooner had the announcement been made of Bake Off flying the BBC’s coop, then Channel 4 declared itself the show’s new home, as well as unveiling plans to kick off its new three-year contract with Love Productions with a celebrity special in aid of Stand Up to Cancer in 2017. Nothing new, but certainly in keeping with past Bake Off contributions to bigger events such as Red Nose Day and Children In Need, and with a transition such as this involving so culturally embraced a property as Bake Off has become, playing it safe feels more than advisable; it’s necessary.
The Great British Bake Off, has, from the outset, been VERY BBC primetime television. It’s bright, it’s warm, its locale equal parts rainy and sunny, a spot in the beautiful English countryside in itself a swansong at broadcast to the summer months now receding to make way for Autumn, which in turn only makes the pastry-based goods on display more alluring through the promise of a warmer tummy upon consumption. Mel and Sue are everyone’s fun aunties/quirky sisters/mildly troublesome daughters, and Paul and Mary are Paul and Mary, parents ready to read the report card aloud. Has any team of judges on any reality show so commanded respect both from contestants and audiences as they have, with the possible exception of the Dragons? Like fellow BBC staples The Antiques Road Show, or even Doctor Who and Top Gear (pre-Evans), Bake Off is literally the show The Simpsons would have come up with to capture quintessential Britishness in one snippet of TV.
Historically the BBC has been the lens through which the wider world of culture and entertainment has perceived the UK, and like any ‘brand’ this has naturally developed a certain set of expectations, a kind of relationship between the BBC and its audience based on a mutual understanding as to aesthetic, tone and content. Sometimes, the envelope is pushed to great success, as has been the case with BBC2’s The Fall. Sometimes, you get a Torchwood: Miracle Day…The big question facing Love Productions now is simple: how much of what defined Bake Off’s relationship with BBC audiences will translate effectively to its new home network? At the end of the day, the ‘brand recognition’ that defines Channel 4 is markedly different from that of the BBC, as much as they both may be public service free-to-air broadcasters. This will have consequences.
Even as I write this, news has just broken that when the show begins anew at Channel 4, it will have to do so with new hosts. Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins have announced they will be stepping down from the roles they have so clearly relished since the show’s inception. The BBC is already emphasising the fundamental shift in how the show will be experienced by viewers, a spokesperson saying “we hope Love Productions change their mind so that Bake Off can stay ad free on BBC One”. In moving Bake Off away from an entity that is solely taxpayer funded, and therefore solely taxpayer accountable (hence the BBC’s commitment to commercial-less television), Love Productions is not simply opening the doors to a different business model, but a different mode of behaviour. Without adverts, Bake Off audiences have enjoyed unfettered hours to savour every gateau, bread and biscuit. At Channel 4, financed in part by third party advertisers, it will be a very different story, and more akin to sampling complimentary tasters than a more immersive viewing experience. Granted, in this day and age of Sky boxes, catch-up, on demand and all manner of methods for consumers to skip the ads (an increasingly frenzied game between advertisers and audiences) this impact upon the viewing experience may be reduced, but even then many of these means are dependent upon additional subscriptions and fees that are likely to cost more in the end than the original license-fee, which will ultimately establish something of an economic divide between audiences for a programme originally enjoyed equally by all.
Love Production’s decision to migrate networks isn’t exactly a bad one. There is a case to be made for the BBC undervaluing its properties, and high-quality programming should certainly be protected, as should those responsible for its production. What’s more, Channel 4 has enjoyed something of a boom these past few years as a broadcaster and as an institution in its own right, not least for its tremendous work covering the Paralympics and having the vision to see The Last Leg’s protracted potential. This is the network of Come Dine With Me, of Gogglebox, with a track record of programming that taps at least in part into the appeal that characterizes Bake Off at the BBC. Are we headed for shamelessly sponsored episodes, the contestants tasked with designing Coca Cola cakes? Unlikely. But with the failure of both the BBC and Love Productions to reach an accord, the latter has cast itself off into uncertain waters without necessarily the surest sense of direction. Brand recognition is nothing new, nor is its importance in any franchise or property, but as the modern media industry continues to diversify into more platforms and consumers’ control over their viewing options expands, traditional audiences need stronger reasons to maintain their loyalty to any particular source of entertainment, and consistency and familiarity of tone is one tremendously influential cause for audience commitment. We shall see, going forwards, how adept Love Productions is at playing by new rules whilst simultaneously staying true to the qualities that made Bake Off so valued a commodity in the first place.