Channel 4 is using the wrong ingredients for its ‘Bake Off’ recipe
Few crumbs of comfort for GBBO fans as baking show moves kitchens
Unappetising: “The Great British Bake Off” new line-up of Noel Fielding, Sandi Toksvig and judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith. Photograph: PA / Channel 4
There’s an imposter pretending to pour the tea and his name is Noel Fielding. He’s surrounded by two other imposters, Prue Leith and Sandi Toksvig, but I know little of Leith and like Toksvig, so for now it’s Fielding that’s the problem interloper, the one who seems all wrong for the Great British Bake Off.
The baking contest begins its new life in the Channel 4 kitchen tonight and I won’t be watching, because, well, I was never that keen on all that oven-related tension anyway. I was mainly tuning in for Mel and Sue. Viewers are fickle, you see – or should that be loyal?
Presenter choice matters. It was bad enough that Bake Off makers Love Productions could no longer serve us the warm, empathetic, funny double-act of Giedroyc and Perkins – who decided “not to go with the dough”. But for some reason it’s been decided that a me-centric performer (Fielding) who says he avoids sugar is now the perfect person to rally a group of people who dedicate their days to pleasing others with elaborately crafted cakes. It’s mystifying.
Channel 4 has put its aprons on and is going all in on this, having paid Love Productions some £75 million (close to €87 million at the time of the deal) for the rights to the show for the next three years, snatching it away from its original home on the BBC like a shameless band of seagulls nabbing ice-creams on the pier.
Absolutely nobody was impressed, not least because the British newspapers that love nothing better than to take crude swipes at the BBC are capable of multitasking and will happily fling a few cream pies in Channel 4’s direction if the opportunity arises. And it has.
Channel 4, a public service broadcaster that gets 100 per cent of its funding from advertising, needs a tent-load of commercial revenue to recoup the price it paid, which means squeezing in about 17 minutes of ads into each show and signing sponsorships with Lyle’s Golden Syrup and Dr Oetker.
Its executives won’t have been amused when Leith, the new judge who isn’t Mary Berry, suggested that viewers could record the show and skip the ads if they annoyed them. Thanks Prue.
Channel 4 has to milk its new baby for advertising, it points out, because otherwise it couldn’t afford to pay for Bake Off – to which dismayed Bake Off fans have responded “so why did you pay for it then?”
The broadcaster in turn suggested it was actually doing the decent thing and saving it from Sky, which already had its middle finger in the Bake Off pie because it is the majority owner of Love.
The truth is that Channel 4 thinks Bake Off will bring home the bacon for the organisation. It needs 3 million viewers to break even on the deal, it says, which even allowing for a vast, disgruntled army of BBC loyalists should be doable in this first year.
In 2016, Bake Off went out on a high. Its final series on the BBC attracted overnight ratings of 10 to 14 million, rising as the series progressed, while the consolidated ratings (which include catch-up viewing) for the final reached 15.9 million. This made it the most-watched programme in the UK since the London 2012 Olympics, which had much fewer scones.
Whipping it up
Television is ultimately like any other market: situations that whip up dissatisfaction for consumers are usually proving profitable for someone somewhere.
Two-thirds or more of the show’s audience could desert Bake Off and it would still make bread for Channel 4.
Love Productions, accused of greed, was only doing business the way companies in other industries do business. It did the smart thing and held on to the intellectual property for the format, giving it control. This is the ultimate lesson of the great channel switch, and one that RTÉ, TV3 and every broadcaster – whether publicly funded or not – should have learned: if you don’t own the IP, you may get burnt. In fact, if you don’t own the IP, what’s the point?
That’s not to say that Love’s decision to decamp to Channel 4 won’t collapse on itself like an overly ambitious Victoria sponge. From now on, its performance will be subject to intense scrutiny.
Each blip in viewership will require defending, each minute of advertising will be reinterpreted as a fork in the eye of middle Britain. The mix may simply curdle.
Here, the Great Irish Bake Off, made by Sideline Productions, lasted three seasons before TV3 turned off the oven last summer. “The trick is when to get in and when to get out,” says TV3’s managing director, Pat Kiely.
And not to put all your eggs in the one cake.