The wisdom of Channel 4’s acquisition of the U.K.’s most popular show, “The Great British Bake Off,” which it has poached from the BBC, was questioned Tuesday after it emerged that none of the show’s on-screen talent had guaranteed they would stay beyond the present season.
After more than a year of negotiations, the BBC is reported to have offered £15 million ($19.8 million) a year for the show, but its creators, Love Productions, wanted £25 million ($32.9 million) — four times its existing deal. Channel 4 then stepped in with its successful bid, which is for a three-year contract.
On Tuesday, news emerged that the show’s goofy but extremely popular hosts, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, will quit the show when it ends its run on the BBC this year. The two judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, whom “Bake Off” has turned into huge stars in Britain, have also not indicated whether they will stay on.
Asked by the Sun newspaper why the show was moving to Channel 4 after six years on the BBC, Berry said, “I have no idea,” before adding tartly: “Anything that happens is nothing to do with my choice.”
The chemistry among the hosts and judges of “Bake Off” has been a key factor in its success. When the show first launched its audiences were modest, around three million, but the latest season, the seventh, kicked off with an average 10.4 million viewers, a whopping 48% of the U.K. total. The show’s ratings peaked at 11.2 million, which is more than the 11.1 million who tuned in for the most popular moment of the Rio Olympics.
The importance of a program’s hosting team has been underscored this year by the struggles of the BBC’s re-booted version of “Top Gear,” with Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc in the drivers’ seats. The pair replaced Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, who are fronting a new car show produced by Amazon, but the new “Top Gear” has seen a sharp decline in the ratings.
Piers Morgan, who co-hosts ITV’s “Good Morning Britain,” tweeted: “If C4 hasn’t locked in Mary Berry to this #GBBO deal then they just bought a £25m lemon drizzle with no flour, lemon or sugar.”
Media journalist Steve Hewlett, who hosts the BBC’s “Media Show,” wondered whether the reason ITV had been “put off” from trying to poach “Bake Off” from the BBC was because the talent was not attached.
Some industry leaders also attacked Channel 4’s opportunistic raid, especially as both the BBC and Channel 4 are government-owned, and Channel 4’s mandate is to offer an alternative approach to the other networks and be an innovator.
Michael Grade, a former chairman of both the BBC and ITV and a former chief executive at Channel 4, suggested that purloining “Bake Off” from the BBC might backfire on Channel 4. The deal might encourage the British government to revive its plan to sell off the network on the grounds that it was no longer fulfilling its obligation to offer distinctive programming.
“I think Channel 4 have shot themselves in the foot…They’ve completely undermined their case against privatization,” Grade said.
He added that Channel 4 had been “arguing very strongly for the last year or so against privatization, putting up an argument that says its remit is to cater for tastes and interests not catered for on other channels and being different and innovating. But it has just splashed out on a show that really belongs to the BBC.”
The “Bake Off” production company’s decision to abandon the BBC comes on the heels of ITV’s snatching away of singing competition show “The Voice” from the BBC. Some observers have asked whether it is right that, after the BBC helps build a show into a success, the show’s producers ditch the BBC in favor of another broadcaster.
Lorraine Heggessey, the head of flagship channel BBC One between 2000 and 2005, said it used to be rare for a production company to desert a show’s original broadcaster. “In my day, there were often tough negotiations over program budgets, but in the end, there was an unwritten rule that you did not walk away and take your show somewhere else,” she told the BBC’s news show “Newsnight.”
“It sounds like Love Productions were going to go [to a rival broadcaster] anyway. That’s what worries me because the BBC has invested a huge amount of license-fee payers’ money in growing this show,” Heggessey said.
Giedroyc and Perkins echoed this sentiment in their statement Tuesday that they would be leaving “Bake Off”: “The BBC nurtured the show from its infancy and helped give it its distinctive warmth and charm, growing it from an audience of 2 million to nearly 15 [million] at its peak.” The co-hosts added: “We made no secret of our desire for the show to remain where it was…We’re not going with the dough.”
Losing U.K. broadcast rights to Channel 4 is a blow for the BBC on top of its loss of “The Voice” and the troubles besetting “Top Gear.” But BBC’s involvement with “Bake Off” is not completely over: The pubcaster’s international sales arm, BBC Worldwide, retains the international format and tape sales rights to the show, excluding North America, for the next 12 years. BBC Worldwide also retains the option to bid for the international distribution of future series of “Bake Off.”
Rights for the U.S. and Canada are held by Love Productions. CBS produced a U.S. version of the show called “The American Baking Competition,” which debuted in May 2013, airing in primetime on Wednesdays, with Jeff Foxworthy hosting and 5 million viewers watching. But by July, the show had collapsed like a bad souffle: ratings had failed to rise, the critics made a face, and CBS decided not to ask for a second helping.
A second attempt at making a U.S. version was made last year by ABC. “The Great Holiday Baking Show” premiered Nov. 30 at 10 p.m. EST, hosted by “My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s” Nia Vardalos and her husband, “Cougar Town” star Ian Gomez, with Berry on board as a judge. It ran for four weeks, averaging 5 million viewers, and returns for a second season in December.