The whole fallout over the failure of the BBC and Love Productions to agree a deal over future series of The Great British Bake-Off is fascinating.
The series started as a run-of-the-mill weekday evening BBC2 cooking competition show, where it was essentially one of many. Yet it morphed into a beast that became the biggest show on British television in fairly short order, transitioning across to BBC1 and making stars of its presenters and competition winners alike. Along the way it gained a number of spin-off shows.
Love Productions owns and makes the show for the BBC. Since 2014 it has been 70% owned by Sky, and perhaps its other best known show has been Benefits Street on Channel 4. But a quick look at their website shows how important the “Great British” brand is. As well as the flagship, there have been a Sport Relief and “Creme de la Creme” versions this year. We’ve also had Junior Bake Off, and Bake Off Masterclasses, and there have been two Mary Berry series as well as a Paul Hollywood series. There was also a two part documentary for primetime BBC1 featuring Nadiya, the winner of last year’s show. Then there are the sewing and pottery sister shows as well.
Bake Off is clearly Love’s core brand, since it would seem that Benefits Street seems to have had its day. Of the 2016 series on their website at time of writing, 32 hours are “Great British…” related, and 8 hours are all its other programmes.
So this contract extension/negotiation was clearly going to be a big deal for Love, and from media reports, negotiations have been long with rumours first surfacing back in April that all was not right and the two parties weren’t seeing eye to eye.
On Monday, as news broke, The Guardian reported an internal Love Productions email that said “this has never been about who might write the biggest cheque but about where we can find the best home for Bake Off,” which is clearly a load of nonsense. It was always about the size of the cheque. Maybe they did turn down an ITV offer in favour of Channel 4, as is the rumour. And perhaps that was a good call, with Channel 4 perhaps better suited of the two commercial services that could seriously bid for it. (NB. This really wouldn’t have made sense for Sky to bid on. The audiences would be tiny, and it just doesn’t seem to fit in with any of their core channels.)
Then came the bombshell that the talent hadn’t been tied up – or even consulted – before the show was sold to C4! Mel and Sue promptly decided that they would be bowing out (neither is short of other work, and they’ve done seven series at this point). Has C4 essentially paid £25m a year for a large marquee in a field?
I think what’s clear is that C4 won’t get anything like the ratings that the BBC got. But there’s probably a commercial equation that means, subject to relatively good ratings, and perhaps becoming C4’s biggest show, there’s a net commercial win for the channel. But at what cost?
A few questions come to mind beyond the emotional ones of whether the show is just quintessentially “a BBC show.”
- How was a deal done without the talent already signed up? Now that Mel and Sue have dropped out, this really gives the whip hand in negotiations to agents of Mary and Paul. C4 will now be desperate to secure them, but if the production fee has gone up several-fold as rumoured, then the talent will be looking for something similar. It’s also probably slightly awkward that they’ve publicly said they want to stay with the BBC.
I would imagine that what really comes into play here is what else they get as part of the deal. That probably means both Paul and Mary getting their own cookery shows, and the opportunity to really cash in on associated book sales. Channel 4 probably also lets them do more overtly commercial deals with their own ranges of baking or cookware, as well as other endorsements. But this will almost certainly come at the cost of audience, and that also impacts on what they can achieve in the wider marketplace. It’s not as though neither of them has had cookery shows on the BBC after all – with bestselling spin-off books. I’m sure the BBC would be very happy to keep offering them cookery slots as well.
- What does this mean for future indies working in formats with the BBC? It’s an interesting time at the moment with indies and the BBC. The new Charter agreement allows for the opening up of more shows to be made by independents. And the creation of BBC Studios allows BBC producers to pitch for shows on other channels. We’ve not really seen a format owned by third party switch networks in the UK unless the format was dropped by the original broadcaster. Channel 4 chose to stop making Big Brother for example. Probably the biggest recent example was The Voice which the BBC also decided not to get into a bidding war over. But that was a format that the BBC had been criticised for buying in the first place as it was something they could have developed. While the intellectual property of Bake Off resides with Love Productions, it’s fair to say that the BBC helped develop the brand.
But my question is whether this means tighter contracts over what an indie can do with a format that airs on the BBC, particularly after it’s grown and nurtured? Do exclusivity clauses become more onerous? Or when a commissioner is faced with two options – one from BBC Studios and one from an indie, are they now more likely to go for the BBC Studios option? I think I’d be a little worried if I was an indie.
- What will audiences do? It may well be the case that if you have a TV (or internet device) you have access to both BBC One and Channel 4, but the fact remains that the same show on different networks will achieve different audiences. And in this instance, it means a smaller audience for C4. Making lots of money is not necessarily seen as a good thing in UK culture, and the fact that this is front page news means audiences know full well that the show has changed channels to make the producers more cash. Does that therefore devalue the show in audiences’ eyes? Paul and Mary are probably in a tough position right now. Stay with the show, and they might look like they’re greedy.
I’m sure Channel 4 can make this work commercially – with premium spot-rates, sponsorship and product placement opportunities. However, if it becomes too overtly commercial that does cause issues with the audience. And they’re going to have to fork out for talent one way or another.
It wouldn’t take a great deal for the BBC to come up with another cookery related competition show that didn’t break anyone’s intellectual property rights. They already air Masterchef after all, and like many other reality formats, it’s notoriously hard to pin down what’s original in this format that hasn’t been done hundreds of times before. I’m not sure that this will be the route that’s followed. There won’t be a “The Grand Tour/Top Gear” re-imagining happening. But star talent is star talent, and at this moment, I suspect Paul and Mary can choose what projects they want.
Is the show right for Channel 4? Perhaps, but it’s hard to see this sitting cheek by jowl with Naked Attraction. Yes, Jamie’s at home there, but the channel is still edgier after 9pm, and it’s not completely clear to me that it’s actually the right fit for a channel who’s remit is to be “Innovative and distinctive,” and “Champion alternative points of view.” Over on Mediatel, Ray Snoddy notes the broader issues about what such “poaching” might mean for the future of Channel 4 itself. Is it a smart thing for one public sector broadcaster to outbid another to buy the show? This isn’t the same as F1 or horse racing.
Incidentally, I don’t actually watch Bake Off very often. But I completely understand the appeal of the programme, and this is a fascinating case study.