Commercial breaking point: Will advertising destroy the 'Great British Bake Off'?

With the show jumping ship to Channel 4, while its hosts are jumping overboard, can the 'Bake Off' rise to a new challenge?


GBBO hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins and judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood [BBC]

First 2016 came for Bowie. Then it smeared its grubby prints all over Prince, Alan Rickman, and Gene Wilder. Then it pulled the UK out of the European Union. And now it’s mooning us all with a soggy bottom. Love Productions, the TV company that brought the TV show to the BBC in 2010, has announced that the show will be departing its midweek prime-time slot on the British national broadcaster and making its way to Channel 4 – after negotiating a new contract worth €88m.

Fans of the show have not been taking the news well. A surprise hit that has seen its audience grow every year, 2010’s final was watched on BBC 2 by roughly 3m viewers. By the time Nadiya Hussein claimed the title of the ultimate star baker of season six, the show was the most watched TV programme of 2015, with some 15m viewers, give or take a liberal shaking of hundreds and thousands, turning the show into a juggernaut. At the time of writing, 6,642 people had signed a petition trying to keep the show at the BBC, with the jokes about waiting for Mary Berry to trigger “Arctic Roll 50” writing themselves.

Winning three BAFTAs (and a fourth one for Junior Bake Off) as well as the much coveted Rose D’Or, Bake Off started off as a cult hit, proving itself a steady grower and rising better than the dough on screen. The UK version of the show, as of 2015, was broadcast in 196 territories around the world, while the format has been sold to 20 countries around the world, making it the BBC’s third most successful after Strictly Come Dancing and The Weakest Link.

“It’s tremendously exciting to have found a broadcaster who we know will protect and nurture The Great British Bake Off for many years to come,” said Love Productions’ creative director Richard McKerrow, outlining plans for three series and celebrity specials.

Arguably, Love Productions doesn’t need the money and presumably could have gotten by on the £15m-per-year offered to it by BBC executives, topped up by a further £10m by Channel 4 – and its advertisers. But money isn’t on Maslow’s pyramidal hierarchy pile, with “desire to make as much as possible” being the entirely justified cornerstone of everything in capitalism. Love Productions is not in the business of public service broadcasting, it is in the business of business.

It’s just that the BBC and GBBO are divorcing and mum’s new boyfriend is a little bit more flash and trying much harder to impress you by being cool. He has all the kitchen utensils, but you prefer dad’s cake mould. During the breaks, between playful double entendres, will be ads for shows in which members of the public pick a date after examining a line up of five penises. Or his lad mates playing Countdown ironically.The BBC, on the other hand, was the perfect bedfellow for the Bake Off tent, a quintessential celebration of British bourgeoisie and Middle Englishness so profound that it comes with its own line of tie-in bunting to tie up around your conservatory. No kitchen-sink dramas, rather an enviable look at proving drawers and KitchenAid mixers. A show where the most shocking thing ever witnessed was a flash of sciurine scrotum and the piercing blue eyes of Paul Hollywood.

Adverts are a part of the Irish viewer’s experience, an inescapable reality in a country of 4.75m people. Keeping the lights on over in Montrose or Ballymount or Baile na hAbhann while keeping the cameras rolling means advertising and sponsorship. It’s one of the reasons why the Great Irish Bake Off just didn’t quite work on TV3 during its three seasons. Among other complains, budgeting in time for adverts stripped the Irish show of one of the challenges viewers had come to expect, with TV3’s weekly episodes picking and mixing two out of the signatures, technicals and showstoppers. It left the pace of the show lacking somewhat, hampered even more so by technical challenges that were essentially recreations of an entire recipe from the Merrion Hotel, so finicky and cumbersome that nobody could succeed.

But still, the show must go on. Just not until 2018. The BBC, who we on this side of the Irish Sea admire as the ultimate paragon of licence-fee broadcasting (while never once actually paying for it), at least had a wire-cooling-rack clause written into its contract, We’ll have to wait a full year for the show to make the switch over. Whether Mary and Paul choose to jump ship or jump overboard like Mel and Sue, we’ll just have to wait and see. Whether the whimsy and fun and lightness of the show can endure is an even greater question. All we know for now is that Channel 4 has already started pre-heating the oven.

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