In the wake of Channel 4’s acquisition of the beloved BBC show The Great British Bake Off, K7’s Dan Whitehead wonders if today’s supposedly platform agnostic audience will care which channel the show airs on.
The UK television industry awoke on the morning of 13 September 2016 to a world forever changed. After months of speculation, the BBC had lost its top rated show The Great British Bake Off to rival terrestrial broadcaster Channel 4. After talks with Sky-owned indie Love Productions broke down, reportedly over costs, the smaller channel swooped and picked up a three year option on one of the nation’s most popular shows.
To the BBC, clearly this matters. Still reeling from a bruising charter renewal process that has seen budgets frozen or slashed, while also absorbing the cost of free TV licenses for pensioners, the national broadcaster is in no state to aggressively barter over money. It now faces the troubling prospect of being legally obliged to outsource a substantial chunk of its commissions to external production companies, but no longer has the financial clout to retain those formats should they become smash hits.
In the age of time-shifted viewing and platform-agnostic content, will the switch from BBC to Channel 4 be all that noticeable in the future?
For Channel 4, the deal is clearly good business. Bake Off’s highly visible social media profile meshes well with the channel’s audience, and Love Productions has a long and fruitful working relationship with the channel already in place. The show’s strong brand awareness will certainly make it much more appealing to a commercial broadcaster that can sell advertising and, crucially, sponsorship around the scheduling.
But what does this deal mean in the wider sense? While it is not unusual for shows to switch channels or networks, such moves generally take place when the show is growing – as when Bake Off went from BBC Two to BBC One – or when a long-running series is in decline or struggling to maintain an audience.
Another form of this swap comes when a particular talent signs a contract with a new broadcaster, as Jonathan Ross did when he left the BBC for ITV. Sometimes it’s a case of a cult success being snapped up by an acquisition-hungry rival, as when Channel 4 lost satirical scripted anthology show Black Mirror to Netflix.
These scenarios are clearly not the case with Bake Off, which is at the peak of its success. The episode which aired on 31 August attracted 13.45m viewers on BBC One. For the same period, Channel 4’s top rated show was Speed with Guy Martin, which drew 2.87m viewers. There’s a difference there that suggests that it’s logistically likely that many of Bake Off’s viewers will not carry over to the show’s new home. Much will depend on retaining the same presenters, of course, just as the BBC learned the painful lesson that owning the Top Gear brand meant little when it was Clarkson, May and Hammond that viewers wanted to see.
At the moment, it is one of the few shows on UK prime time that still commands dedicated scheduled viewing. Being part of the social media conversation, both during broadcast and the morning after, is a huge part of fans involvement. Yet in the age of time-shifted viewing and platform-agnostic content, will the switch from BBC to Channel 4 be all that noticeable in the future? If catching up with the series means opening the All 4 app rather than the iPlayer, will that change the viewer experience? In essence, what is the value of a broadcaster’s brand when the format is what matters?
We won’t find out the answers to these questions for some time yet. Channel 4’s deal won’t kick in until late 2017, with a celebrity special, and it will be 2018 before we see the first full Bake Off series in its new home. For now, it seems there is a fascinating case study in the oven. We wait to see what emerges with bated breath.