“The Great British Baking Show” returned to PBS this week, although whether it returned on Friday, Saturday or Sunday depends on the whims of your local station. When the show debuted stateside in 2015, it was part of a growing movement in reality TV that rejected the callousness long associated with the genre. Instead, fans discovered that a reality competition could still find drama while treating contestants in a humane fashion.
But as the rest of reality TV catches up with “Baking Show,” the series finds itself with an ugly problem it’s tried desperately to ignore. Behind-the-scenes backbiting has left the series running out of episodes — and most of its American audience doesn’t even know it yet.
“The Great British Baking Show” is known as “The Great British Bake Off” (or GBBO) overseas — you can blame Pillsbury’s trademark for the change. It first aired in 2010 as a one-off, six-episode special. As much a “history of baking in Britain” as it was a reality competition, the first season included long segments discussing the history of various baked goods. Seeing potential, however, the BBC poured money into it, tweaking the format in subsequent seasons to be less historical and more competitive. The show was also startlingly considerate towards its contestants. This was partly enforced by the hosts: Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc famously walked off set after the producers tried to manufacture drama and made a contestant cry. The judges also were far sympathetic than most, especially Mary Berry.
By season five, GBBO’s gentle show had become so popular that the BBC moved it from the food-and-home themed BBC Two channel to its flagship BBC One. The commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, also leased first run rights to PBS, starting with the first BBC One season.
Here’s where it gets a bit confusing, because the first BBC One season was actually the fifth season back in the UK. PBS ran season five under the “Baking Show” moniker starting at the end of December 2014. But when PBS asked for a new season for 2015, there was nothing ready, so it wound up airing season four that fall instead. Since then, PBS has followed BBC’s once-a-year-in-summer model, airing (in this order) GBBO seasons five, four, six and then seven. When asked about the original first three seasons, PBS said it was doubtful they would ever come to the states.
But the out-of-order seasons were not the only thing quietly amiss at “Baking Show,” however. While on screen the show may practice and preach benevolence, the people behind the scenes have proven to be as ruthless as the competitors on “Survivor.” When season seven debuted in the UK in 2016 to a larger audience than Rio’s Olympic opening ceremony, Love Productions, who produces the series, demanded the BBC pay it £25 million to continue airing the show, or else.
This was money the BBC simply didn’t have. PBS gets some government subsidies, but much of its programming relies on the whims of philanthropic billionaires, corporations looking for tax write offs, and of course, Viewers Like You. (This is one reason why the stations are not required to stick to the national schedule, and why — though “Baking Show” is supposed to air on Fridays at 9 p.m., fans should check their local listings.) The BBC, on the other hand, is 100 percent dependent on the government, with a charter than gets approved regularly by Parliament. Currently, £25 million is more than half of the entire operating budget of BBC Four.
When the BBC called Love Productions’ bluff, the company walked and took GBBO to the commercial Channel 4. There was just one problem: no one involved with the show was actually locked into a contract. Appalled by the cash grab, BBC loyalists Mary Berry and hosts Sue and Mel quit within days. As the hosts said in a statement: "We're not going with the dough." Judge Paul Hollywood was the only one who didn't have anything keeping him to the BBC. He’s also the least nice of anyone involved, so fans may not be surprised that he was fine with it.
The drama would have seemed typical at another reality show, perhaps, but it ran counter to everything GBBO was supposed to stand for. Worse, one of the replacement hosts, Noel Fielding, was the subject of a recent blackface scandal. PBS knew it wasn’t going to get away with that in the U.S.
Oddly, however, PBS has decided to deal with the situation by pretending it never happened. Rather than make a deal with Channel 4 to bring season eight to the U.S., it decided to skip back to season three. In other words, in the real world, there are new hosts and Prue Leith stands next to Paul Hollywood judging the food. In PBS’ world nothing has changed, because American viewers will be watching a season that aired in the UK in 2012.
Meanwhile, over the in UK, GBBO is thriving on Channel 4. It’s slightly less good-natured than it used to be, but not so much that viewers complain. Predictably, other series which are clearly inspired by the “Baking Show” model are springing up, like NBC’s reality crafting series “Making It,” hosted by Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman. A spirit of positivity is infecting shows like “The Voice.” Even Bravo has taken back “Project Runway” for a milder, more fashion-focused reboot.
Love Productions and the BBC have also somewhat made up. When GBBO left, all the current spin-offs the two had created over the years were suspended as well. Now they are back in production with a new season of the GBBO spin-off series, “The Great British Sewing Bee.” (No word if they’ll also bring back GBBO’s other spin-off “The Great Pottery Throw Down,” but here’s hoping.) But what exactly PBS and BBC Worldwide are going to do going forward with a rapidly decreasing stockpile of GBBO episodes is still very much up in the air.
This stop-gap measure will work for at least one more year (season two is still unaired in the U.S.) but then either they’ll need a replacement or will have to accept the show is over in the states, even as it continues to air in the U.K. Either way, this year’s season marks the beginning of the end for a series that taught Americans that reality shows could actually be the nicest shows on earth. Too bad they couldn’t practice behind the scenes what they preach on screen.