The Great British Bake off raises issues on BBC business

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The news of ‘The Great British Bake off’, one of BBC’s flagship programmes, leaving its comfortable TV home to attempt untried terrestrial territory, has raised questions and underlined the broadcasting world we now live in. The negotiations between The BBC and the owners of ‘Bake off’ reached stalemate, enter Channel 4 who outbid Auntie by £10 million for the rights to ‘The Great British Bake off’. It’s those who own the intellectual property of programmes that are increasingly in the driving seat with modern broadcasting, due to the increasing number of distribution players in the TV industry and the need for audiences. In the past all the channels had the power, nowadays increasingly they are just customers for TV shows to retail to the public.

What is nice to see is comedians and presenters Sue Perkins & Mel Giedroyc not being seduced by the cheque book, saying ‘we’re not going with the dough’. Leaving the programme with their own integrity held high, closely followed by Mary Berry who wanted to ‘stay loyal’ to the BBC. Turning down cash and loyalty are two behaviours often missing in today’s media world. This leaves the production company facing new artistic challenges in finding their replacements. Others on ‘Bake off’ found the allure of the glitter on offer to tempting to turn down, but this ultimately might not lead to TV gold. Whether these forced and important changes to the production will still hold the audience of 13 million remains to be seen or from a positive angle could it even be improved?

Over ten years ago I sat in a meeting room at the old BBC Television centre negotiating licensing agreements for certain BBC shows. Throughout this period of business, it surprised me how few rights the BBC actually owned of their own programmes. So much had been sold off or even given away. This seemed shocking business from a giant of world and public broadcasting. TV writer & producer Phil Redmond believed his shrewdest business decision was keeping hold of the copyright of ‘Grange Hill’ when it first aired in 1978. He said ‘I knew this was where the true value lay. They (The BBC) tried to sweep it up for the second series. That’s when I pointed out that they couldn’t because I owned it, which is why it was me, and not the BBC, who licensed the merchandising spin offs’.

Due to a complicated legal case with ABC (American broadcaster) over the way ‘Monty Pythons flying circus’ were being edited and shown, the BBC naively allowed the Python team to have the rights to their programmes once their original contracts ended in 1980. Eric Idle confirmed ‘We (Python team) own the copyright on almost everything we ever made’. Great for the Pythons bad for the BBC.

BBC Enterprises (now BBC Worldwide) was set up in 1979 to help exploit the new video market place and to continue the drive to sell BBC programmes abroad. In those days so many of these ancillary rights remained with the BBC. All this commercial revenue was then put back into the BBC corporation supporting the organisation grow and fund programme making. This extra revenue one would feel would help keep the license fee in check. The increasing power of independent production companies has meant holding onto the intellectual property of programmes has become increasingly difficult for networks. This actually was fuelled by channel 4’s emergence in 1982 and given a further boost by the Broadcasting Act 1990 forcing the BBC to a minimum 25% quota of independent productions starting in 1992.

There is another issue with the commercial transfer of ‘Bake off’ that has raised media observer’s heads. Channel 4, is still a government channel with a remit to commission minority programing with strong taste and interest. They have been fighting off calls for privatisation for over two years but now as former BBC Executive and past Channel 4 Chairman Michael Grade pointed out ‘they have behaved like a fully privatised company. It’s a shocking deal for channel 4’. Could this move be a final own goal for Channel 4?

The BBC as a business has commercial interests in other channels and production companies which change and merge within the ever developing media world. This bastion of British broadcasting continues to be a very successful and important programme maker, fighting continually for more revenue to fund world beating TV projects. Their output and back catalogue is something we should be proud of. But the BBC has never been quite as good at doing business.

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