Netflix's 'Great British Baking Show' has a new winner — and perhaps a new streaming strategy

The choice to air “The Great British Baking Show” weekly suggests Netflix is seeing the limits of its once disruptive ways.
The Great British Bake Off - Final
"GBBO" winner David Atherton stands with judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith.Mark Bourdillon / Channel 4
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By Ani Bundel

Not everything Netflix labels “original” programming is made in-house. This may seem like false advertising, but Netflix’s co-production deals with other studios is a relatively smart compromise. The most obvious of these is “The Great British Baking Show,” which Netflix airs as an “original” in this country despite it being co-produced in the United Kingdom by Channel 4. With the season finale arriving Friday, Netflix concludes its latest experiment in how it delivers television to American audiences. Instead of dropping the series binge style, this season has been airing weekly, as God and the queen intended. Such flexibility may seem like a small thing, but it’s also a reminder of the value of week-to-week television.

Instead of dropping the series binge style, this season has been airing weekly, as God and the queen intended.

“The Great British Bake Off” (known in this country as “The Great British Baking Show” for Pillsbury reasons) was already a well-established, and very popular property when Netflix picked it up in 2018. After an ugly fight between producer Love Productions and the BBC, the show moved to Channel 4. That’s when Netflix swooped in, making a deal to own first-run rights outside of the U.K. big enough that it could slap the “Netflix Original” sign on it starting with the U.K.’s season eight. (Due to all the shuffling, seasons are labeled differently in the U.S. and the U.K., with American seasons operating on a delay.)

For season 10 (U.S. season seven), instead of releasing all the episodes together at the end of the competition, Netflix decided to follow a once-a-week release schedule in tandem with Channel 4. There was still a slight delay — Channel 4 aired the episodes Tuesday evenings and Netflix released them Friday mornings — but for fans of the show who were used to waiting, this new 55-hour pause felt practically instantaneous. The bigger and far more positive change, however, was that fans who had been forced to convert to the binge model following "GBBO's" move to Netflix were now able to experience the series weekly again, just like their U.K. counterparts.

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This sort of schedule isn’t new to Netflix. It actually does this overseas with a lot of “Netflix Original” American series, like “Riverdale.” But the change nevertheless caused a minor uproar. Headlines declaring Netflix was abandoning binging were published, followed by more headlines telling everyone to calm down; Netflix was doing no such thing.

These overreactions were indicative of something, though. Netflix’s choice to go weekly felt like a sea change, especially when its competition are loudly eschewing the binge model. Was Netflix silently admitting that some shows simply work better when there’s a wait between episodes?

It also felt like a big deal because by bowing to the weekly format, Netflix was acknowledging that “The Great British Baking Show’s” popularity isn’t just about watching people bake. Like any reality competition, it’s about getting to know the contestants and arguing over the judges' decisions.

It also felt like a big deal because by bowing to the weekly format, Netflix was acknowledging that “The Great British Baking Show’s” popularity isn’t just about watching people bake.

Such discussions require time. As a result, contestants who last more than a couple of weeks on “The Great British Baking Show” gain celebrity status in the U.K. Season six winner Nadiya not only parlayed this fame into baking the queen’s birthday cake but also founded her own franchise of shows and cookery books. Both season five and season seven winners Nancy Birtwhistle and Candice Brown are household names. But they arguably became celebrities by turning up on people’s televisions week after week. That simply doesn’t work with binging.

Netflix’s entire binging model was based on an attempt to “disrupt” a facet of life people took for granted. In this case, Netflix was attempting to disrupt the TV schedule, freeing viewers from the tyranny of “appointment television.” But it turns out that humans actually crave shared experiences. “The Great British Baking Show” isn’t about watching people kneel in front of ovens while their breads rise (or don’t). It’s about an event.

It’s about spending the weekend arguing if the technical challenges are going too far. It’s about debating if demanding pie dough be made structural, and then complaining when it’s dry is fair. (It’s not, by the way.) And it’s about texting, Facebooking, tweeting and arguing with your IRL friends about whether David Atherton’s win was justified. (Considering Atherton probably should have gone home during Patisserie Week in the semifinal over Rosie, his underdog win did come with some strings. And watching season front-runner Steph crumble was brutal.)

Moreover, certain kinds of TV shows are more dependent than others on that shared experience model. Critics of “Game of Thrones” love to point out “The Big Bang Theory” has more viewers, but (almost) no one ever tweeted or wrote about it. That’s because “Game of Thrones” was an event everyone watched together — to the point that HBO aired it simultaneously around the world. “The Big Bang Theory,” on the other hand, is far more suited to the binge model, where one leaves it on in the background all day as comfort noise.

Reality TV especially depends on fan connection. Check Twitter during broadcasts of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” and you’ll see a burst of viewer action tied together via hashtags. Netflix has its share of popular reality style series, like “Nailed It!” but when was the last time any of those contestants, or even the challenges, were memorable? For comparison, just ask any “Great British Baking Show” fan about the “bingate” scandal during the Baked Alaska showstopper challenge.

The choice to air “The Great British Baking Show” weekly suggests Netflix is seeing the limits of its once disruptive ways. It’s doubtful the service will give up its binge model anytime soon — it’s the staple that defines them. But recognizing not every show can work that way is a good sign for the ones that would do better stretched out over time. “The Great British Baking Show,” meanwhile, can finish off its first decade knowing both U.K. and U.S. fans will be back to argue about which bake was better all over again for 10 weeks next fall.