14 million. That’s how many people watched the final of The Great British Bake Off live when it aired this October, as Candice Brown was crowned the seventh winner of the series. In this era of streaming, catch-up and illegal downloading, to command such a large audience share during its original transmission is nothing short of remarkable.
In 2016, very few programmes are able to confidently refer to themselves as ‘Event TV’. But to miss the Bake Off was to miss out on the national conversation. It was a programme that appeared to serve as the embodiment of feel-good television; pure escapist fare that when watched, made viewers think that for that at least an hour, all that mattered in the world was the proving process of someone’s enriched dough, or the consistency of a contestant’s Baked Alaska.
Very rarely does a show seem to be so universally loved. It is perhaps for that reason then that when it was announced in September that the BBC had lost the rights to the show to Channel 4, the public response was one not just of uproar, but one that bordered upon grief.
When Love Productions, the company who owns the Bake Off format, made the decision to take the series to Channel 4 as part of a £75 million move, it was seen as quite a surprise. At face value, The Great British Bake Off would appear to be one of the least commercialised shows on air, so a big money move to a channel which relies solely on advertising to survive caught many off-guard. The backlash from fans was as incensed as it was immediate. Twitter was awash with users claiming that they would boycott the show.
Should the producers have seen such a backlash coming? After all, part of the Bake Off’s charm was seemingly based on a homely and basic format that served as a comfort to an audience usually inundated with more cynical and heavily commercialised television content.
But Channel 4 and Love Productions seemed confident that they would be able to keep the magic Bake Off formula alive as it made the switch from the Beeb. However, this seems to have been a misjudgement.
Within days of the announcement, hosts Mel and Sue, for many the essence of Bake Off’s cheeky charm, stated that they would leave the programme, refusing to “go with the dough”. Mary Berry also turned down the chance to move. The almost unanimous support that they received in the press and on social media seemed to echo this notion that the Bake Off was an almost pure television entity that was about to go through a process of commercial corruption. As we have seen with recent reboot of Top Gear, it is not so much the actual content of the show, but the connection struck up between an audience and a television brand that keeps people watching and engaging. People weren’t so much watching for the cars as they were for the atmosphere of ‘banter’ built up around Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May. Would this be the same with Bake Off? Were people really just watching for the cakes?
Love Productions and their executive staff began to find themselves under huge scrutiny in both the press and social media. However, even in the face of this criticism, there still seemed to be a clear silver lining. For a channel like Channel 4, whose main hits like Gogglebox only attract around 3.5 million viewers, even a third of the Bake Off’s BBC viewing figures would make it one of their most successful shows, bringing in guaranteed advertising revenue. Some industry reports have even been quoting figures as high as £8 million for brands looking to secure sponsorship of the show, suggesting that financially, Channel 4 will most likely recoup the majority of their investment.
So what can be learned from all this? Undoubtedly, the move could prove to be a great financial result for the likes of Channel 4, Love Productions and Paul Hollywood. However, for many the show will simply not be the same again and the magic of the Bake Off brand has been lost. As has been shown by Top Gear, negative PR surrounding the re-launch of a series can prove to be a difficult hurdle for a show to overcome. This hurdle appears to have been raised even higher for Bake Off due to the fervent nature of many fans’ disappointment. Fundamentally, the whole episode serves as a reminder that understanding why an audience connects with a product is key to its survival and success.
At this stage, we have to resort to clichés. The proof will be in the pudding and only time will tell whether this was a showstopping move or not. Meanwhile we will just have to watch this space!