Ready, Set, Flake: Is 'Bake Off' About To Crumble?

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Hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, at right, announced they are leaving <em>The Great British Bakeoff</em> in the wake of its move from the BBC to Channel 4.

Twice in the history of the beloved televised baking competition known as The Great British Bake Off (aka The Great British Baking Show in the U.S.), a baker used salt instead of sugar, and produced an inedible cake.

Unrelated: The BBC just lost Bake Off to independent broadcaster Channel 4, and it's left a bad taste in everybody's mouth.

It's a blow to the BBC; Love Productions, which makes the show, danced around the issue of money (the Beeb's offer was apparently 10 million pounds short of Channel 4's). There's some pointed subtext in an email sent to staff; the parties were apparently "unable to agree either a fair valuation, and nor were the BBC able to provide the necessary comfort for the future protection of such a distinctive and much-loved television series."

It would sound like hyperbole, except that Bake Off actually is that important. (And not just to those of us who binged it on Netflix or, hypothetically, subscribed to PBS for access to archived seasons.) Last year's finale was watched by more than 13 million people in the U.K. — making it 2015's most-watched show.

The "Bake Off effect" is credited with rising (heh) an international interest in baking; a hobby store franchise reported a 3,514 percent increase in cake-decorating accessories, and department store John Lewis reported a 300 percent increase in sales of the Kenwood stand mixer that appears on the show. And the format has been franchised in 20 other territories, plus two spinoffs on the Beeb itself.

But neither those also-rans (one with kids, one with professionals) nor the numerous local versions that continue to spring up have captured the magic of the original. Bake Off has succeeded the same way its bakers have: by balancing several delicate ingredients to make a bizarrely enchanting whole. In particular, it has managed to build a reality competition by turning its lack of stakes into a feature rather than a bug. Sure, the bakers are heartbreakingly invested, and the occasional scandal crops up (don't ask about BinGate).

But as a rule, this is a show based on results rather than conflict; no one has ever failed a bake because they didn't race for the finite supply of eggs quickly enough. And it's achingly empathetic. Bakers are supportive of each other; hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc are sympathetic and suggestive by turns; judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood keep everything in perspective. Its simplicity is the source of its comfort: Everyone has a space, everyone has a plan, everyone tries their hardest.

In fact, the Bake Off doesn't resemble any of the dozens of food-based competitions — which is one of the reasons I watch it. Scripted TV hits my machinations limit; sometimes I just want to watch eight people ice cakes, with occasional teasing. (My favorite running joke: one contestant dismissing Paul as "the male judge" after a bad round, which came back to haunt her every week.) Bake Off hits me in the same place as Norway's Slow TV, which documents, say, eight-hour train journeys in real time.

Both shows know we understand the shape of the journey, and offer a contemplative background for sharp details: the effects of drastic altitude on local climates or the skill required to cut mille-feuille cleanly; the beauty of a lone farmhouse or Mary Berry's fondness for tipple. Bake Off is so watchable precisely because we know the shape of its journey well enough to appreciate the small things; no matter the stressful bakes, the camaraderie in the tent is worth it. (In a real sense, Bake Off is the anti-reality show — contestants are there to make friends.)

What makes it all the more crushing is that the show as we know it is already effectively over. There's already a vocal lack of faith in Channel 4's ability to grow the show in line with public sensibilities as the BBC has: keeping the innuendos punny, the contestants reflective of the U.K.'s diversity, the attitudes positive, and the asides educational. With Mel and Sue both leaving, viewers and contestants alike note the crucial loss to the show's tone.

Often they were as much a hindrance as a help — Sue alone has squashed someone's dough half a dozen times — but past bakers are vocal about how hard they work to keep the mood light. In case of baker meltdown, they even stand nearby and curse, rendering the footage unusable. It's suitably goofy, but it also speaks to a certain protectiveness and desire for narrative restraint that will likely be hard to maintain under a new regime.

Recently, there's been obvious tension between the budget-eviscerated BBC and the U.K.'s private channels; the government that emptied the BBC's coffers is making much of whether the BBC is "worth saving"' based on the shows it's able to retain. (This isn't the first show Channel 4 has snapped up — Jamie Oliver jumped ship after filming three seasons of The Naked Chef for the BBC) Losing a tentpole series like Bake Off suggests long-term repercussions as the broadcaster tries to justify itself to a hostile government.

Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood have yet to comment, but it's not unreasonable to imagine they, too, might stay behind. The four of them have become one of the most recognizable (and most mockable) teams in British reality TV. Should all four cast members split (like a shoddy pie crust) (sorry), it will be a statement about the inherent value of the BBC name. Suddenly, a tent full of bakers has become a skirmish in the battle to save the BBC itself.

And if Mary and Paul go, Channel 4 will not have bought a show; it will have inherited an object lesson. Producers will have to hope audiences' fondness for the formula overrides their investment in the show's trademark dynamics. But based on the Internet reaction that's still going strong, viewers understand what Channel 4 might not yet: The actual baking of Bake Off is merely the medium, and not the story it's telling. Until now, Bake Off was a haven of collegial profiteroles themed like woodland creatures. Now, it's stuck in a proving drawer, and until it comes back out, we won't know — may Mel and Sue forgive us — if it will rise again.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the BBC lost Top Gear to Channel 4. The BBC still owns the show.

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