Has Channel 4 made a Great British mistake in buying Bake Off?

The broadcaster’s sensational grab of the most popular programme on British Television is an impressive but risky move, says Ben Dowell

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When Channel 4 announced its lightning acquisition of The Great British Bake Off, it looked like a win-win for the cool broadcaster.

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It had snatched the most popular programme on British television from under the noses of the BBC, which had been unable to strike a deal with producers Love Productions after more than a year of negotiations.

Love believed that the BBC was underpaying for the show, and wanted £25m for it. The BBC, say Corporation sources, was able to go to £15m but no more. And then Channel 4 swooped, stumping up the cash and carrying away the prize when everyone thought that ITV was the only one that was interested.

Quite how much negotiating Channel 4 had been doing with Love before the swoop isn’t clear. Deals like these are not decided in a matter of minutes, of course. But the important question remains: is it the right move for Channel 4?

It’s certainly a risky one.

The presenting line up of Paul Hollywood, Mary Berry, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins were not in place when the deal was made and Channel 4 was rocked on Tuesday when Mel and Sue said they were leaving the show.

Will Paul and Mary move from the BBC to C4? They have all made soundings about how they would prefer Bake Off to stay on the BBC so there is not guarantee that they will.

And, as we have seen with the Chris Evans Top Gear debacle,  it’s all very well maintaining a format, but it’s the presenters who make the show.

Also, Mary Berry is now 81 years old. Will she want to move with the show? How will Bake Off develop and grow on a new channel? 

More Bake Off debate in this week’s Radio Times podcast – listen below…

The example C4 would like us to reflect on is live international cricket. In 1998 Channel 4 acquired the rights to England home Test matches from the BBC, a move which shocked the TV industry and sports fans. And Channel 4 did a great job, reviving the Beeb’s quite stale coverage with fresh new presenters and filming techniques. It was a devastatingly good move that worked wonders.

But no one could describe the Great British Bake off, the most popular show on British TV with an audience of ten million, as a format in need of reviving.

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Also, what about viewer loyalty? Many viewers have expressed disappointment about the move. Will they watch it on Channel 4? With ad breaks and possible commercial tie-ins? The BBC say Bake Off is a “quintessentially BBC show” – and it’s hard to argue with that.

Also, there could be more trouble ahead in the longer term positioning of Channel 4.

C4 is a brilliant broadcaster, but one which has traditionally been the feeder to the mainstream, not the poacher. Will this mark a turning point for them? And what will Ofcom have to say given C4’s remit to bring on talent rather than buy things in? 

Also, that £25m it’s paying will have to come from somewhere. If I worked in comedy or drama or factual entertainment at C4 I’d be worried about possible shrinking budgets, although the broadcaster insists that the cash to pay for Bake Off has been earmarked from savings it has made (from horse-racing, for example, which is going to ITV) and that its other genre budgets will not suffer.

It adds that it has always been a channel showing a mix of popular shows that pay the bills alongside its more stretching, taxing, public service fare, its Dispatches and Unreported Worlds.

But still, looking even further ahead, the Bake Off move could fuel the argument for Channel 4’s privatisation, which few people working in TV believe is a good idea.

But the subject is not off the agenda, and C4’s land grab, which has so far not proved a popular move, could end up being a convenient stick to beat them with politically. 

Could their public service credentials prove a little harder to defend after buying up a show, which the BBC has nurtured, with big wads of cash? Let’s not forget, the way Strictly was scheduled against X Factor was an easy weapon to beat the BBC with during charter renewal. And politicians like easy weapons.

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I hope I’m wrong. Maybe they will keep the same presenting line up in a seamless move which keeps all 10 million viewers and makes tonnes of money. Channel 4 is a great, pioneering broadcaster stuffed full of talented people. Let’s hope they haven’t just made a great British mistake.