The general tenor of the debate around the move of The Great British Bake Off from BBC to Channel 4 is that it is a travesty, equivalent to Love Productions selling the Crown Jewels. Bizarrely, even former Channel 4 CEO (and ex-BBC Chairman) Michael Grade has lambasted C4’s behaviour and warned that it was likely to hasten full privatisation.
As the prospect of C4’s privatisation has been on the cards for at least ten years, this seems a red herring. Surely, if it is going to be sold off, it needs to be commercially strong, and so the question should be: does buying Bake Off make commercial sense?
The answer, emphatically, is yes. It is widely known that ITV also put in a strong bid – but were pipped at the last minute by their cheeky rivals. Sky (Love Production’s 70% owner) was interested, but couldn’t make a compelling case.
So why were all the mainstream commercial broadcasters so interested in Auntie’s prize asset?
It is not just the viewing figures which make it attractive – although these would be gold dust for C4 in a declining market, and will demand premium rates from advertisers – it’s the commercial opportunity it represents for brands keen to be part of the Bake Off experience.
For example, I am obsessed by those ovens. The sliding doors, the even bake: but on the BBC, all branding is removed. Imagine what Neff would pay for that kind of product placement? Even the Daily Mail, which predictably railed against the sale (a great chance to kick both the BBC and C4), has run features on ‘Bake Off envy’, detailing the products used. Imagine a Bake Off kitchen with – instead of anonymous clear bowls – bags of McDougalls flour, boxes of Clarence Court eggs, packets of Country Life butter? Would it detract that much from the viewing experience? Or would it actually make good baking feel slightly more attainable?
Sponsorship and advertising alone could well cover the £25m fee that C4 has paid (Enders Analysis have estimated that each episode would attract £3m in top line revenue). Everything else (licensing, digital tie-ins, overseas rebroadcasts, product placement) could be bunce. Happy days. And while the loss of Mel and Sue is a blow, C4 executives will be desperate to hold on to Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry. Their silence to date is a positive sign; it is slightly inconceivable that Love would have sold the rights without first consulting the stars’ agents, whatever is said publicly – although the media backlash might make it unpalatable for Berry in particular.
The history of shows that have been transferred to C4 is a mixed one, of course: while it totally reinvented cricket highlights after years of BBC stodginess, it more or less killed the Richard and Judy bandwagon. And the unspoken force of BBC promotion is not to be underestimated: it is hard to see the winner of next year’s competition featuring on the Six O’Clock News and the Today programme.
Still, there is one reason to be optimistic: with its dual commercial/public service remit, C4 might just be the natural home for Bake Off. Like the BBC of old, its remit is to inform, educate, and entertain – which Bake Off does in spades. In the hair-shirted, post-Whittingdale, charter review era of BBC, the corporation is still allowed to educate and inform – so long as it only dares to entertain in moderation. And at moderate cost.