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13 September 2016

Goodbye to Mel and Sue: the story of how Britain lost The Great British Bake Off

As the country’s most-loved television programme moves from BBC to Channel 4, losing its presenters in the process, this is how the national crisis unfolded.

By James Cooray Smith

There have been times in the last 12 months when it felt like shared affection for The Great British Bake Off was the closest thing to a unifying sense of self left for Britons. It’s because of this that the announcement that the programme would be moving from BBC One to a commercial channel after seven series provoked such a reaction this week.

This wasn’t just a Twitterstorm. This was a national crisis, which cruelly involved the nation’s main distraction from its multitude of ongoing national crises.

Details slowly emerged. The production company, Love Productions, it’s said, wanted the BBC to pay them £25m a year to keep the series. That’s a quadrupling of the fee. BBC One counter-offered, saying they would merely double it to £12.5m.

It is, of course, understandable that Love would want a lot of money for the renewal of their contract to supply the most popular programme on television, and also understandable that the BBC should baulk at paying such a fee for a programme – no matter how popular – recorded in a tent in a field, and in which most participants are members of the public. The ever-present spectre of tabloid complaints about “wasting public money” is unlikely to have been far from anyone’s mind as the price was named.

The BBC and Love’s Great Great British Bake Off Stand Off finished at 4pm and, it’s claimed, Love’s representatives were straight in a taxi to Channel 4, who seem to have promptly agreed to Love’s terms. It’s also easy to see that Channel 4 would want the series, which is currently watched by five and half times as many people as Channel 4’s own highest-rated programmes. It could literally lose three-quarters of its current audience in the move and still be a massive hit by Channel 4’s standards.

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There were some sighs of relief that Channel 4, rather than ITV, 5 or Sky had been the out-bidder. A move to one of the other commercial operators could plausibly involve the series suddenly taking place in a neon sex dungeon set, or a week where the technical challenge is to bake your own pet.

Channel 4, though, already takes a lot of Love programming – although little of it shares anything with Bake Off – and have a pre-existing relationship with the production company, so you wouldn’t expect it to change that much.

There are, however, inevitably going to intrusive commercial breaks, perhaps with quizzes either side of them, which ask you taxing questions like “Is Mary Berry’s name a) Mary b) Bandril c) Geoff Hurst in the 1966 World Cup Final?”

The question raised by some is why Love should not profit from the fruit of its labour, getting the highest available price for the hugely popular programme it created. The problem with that, though, is that only the BBC would have purchased and nurtured the Bake Off format.

That’s not a platitude or a hand-wringing hypothetical, it’s just true. Love had hawked the format around for a long time before BBC Two picked it up. Even then it was bought out of a factual budget, at a lower cost, rather than as an entertainment series – which would have entailed a higher fee – because no one else wanted it. Only the BBC had any faith at all that the programme was worth making, supporting it in its earliest days, and moving it around the schedules as its audience grew and the programme became the behemoth it is.

That makes its success as much BBC One’s as Love’s. And let’s be frank – on BBC One, it’s the biggest programme on television. It will not be that on Channel 4. A profit motive is wholly understandable, but there’s something almost perverse about making a move that guarantees the number of people who experience the entertainment you create will dramatically fall.

Initial reports that the deal done with Channel 4 did not guarantee the involvement of the current presenting and judging talent have already been borne out, with presenters Mel and Sue announcing they will not be moving with the programme.

It was the reluctance of judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood to move from the BBC that led to premature reports last month that the corporation had succeeded in keeping the series. This could be only the first in a series of revelations that would make the fee to which Channel 4 has seemingly committed to seem foolishly large. There may be another Great Great British Bake Off Stand Off on the horizon.

As the BBC found out, to its cost, after it had to remove Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear, this kind of factual entertainment programme lives and dies by the chemistry of its presenting talent. You could change Bake Off’s name, alter the round order, move it to a different tent in a different field, or change any number of other trivial things, but without Mary and Paul and Mel and Sue, Bake Off isn’t Bake Off.

If BBC One suddenly cooks up the subtly distinct “Berry & Hollywood’s Cake Off, featuring Mel & Sue”, in-house, and puts it on Wednesdays at 8 o’clock, Channel 4 and Love Productions will suddenly find that glorious sounding £25m deal has something of a soggy bottom.

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