Channel 4's Bake Off deal is more than a soggy bottom
Channel 4 was winning the argument against privatisation. Not anymore, writes Raymond Snoddy
Channel 4's £75 million "victory" in prising The Great British Bake Off from the BBC is one of the great disasters in the channel's recent history, in ways that they probably haven't even yet begun to realise.
Congratulations: they have beaten the BBC into the ground with their chequebooks. The BBC was only prepared to triple to £15 million what it was prepared to pay for the new series of something it was intrinsically involved in creating over seven series.
Well done Channel 4: a public service broadcaster, the mantle you usually claim for yourself, has used the crude powers of the marketplace to snatch something that was working perfectly well where it was in the public interest and to the obvious pleasure of audiences.
It's a great achievement by Jay Hunt, who lords it in the title of Channel 4's "chief creative officer," although she had no hand whatsoever in the creation of the Great British Bake Off.
The "creativity" of David Abraham, chief executive of Channel 4, can only have been engaged in authorising the decision by one public service broadcaster to outbid another to the general laugther and applause of their commercial rivals.
The problems with the deal are multiple and tell you many of the things you need to know - not many of them pleasant - about the current nature of the British broadcasting system.
Congratulations also to Love Productions, 70 per cent owned by Sky, which came up with the rather generic idea of a television baking competition. But fair enough, generic it may be, it was their idea and probably few people have suggested such a thing before. They hold, as they say in the trade, the IP and the ultimate format rights.
Except that there are other, until now legally unacknowledged, IP rights. They flow from the creativity involved in taking a daft idea and promoting it and breathing life into it. And then they gave a prime slot to it and found a perfect way of turning it into a 10 million audience show in an age of fragmentation of audiences, with influence over the style, presenters and production values.
We do not inhabit an age of loyalty, or, indeed, some would say decency; almost all of that is now always trumped by profit. For the commercial sector that is how things are and perhaps should be. It should not be how things are at Channel 4.
Once upon a time the recently late Sir Antony Jay, a Conservative free-marketer to his fingertips, explained at a private Financial Times lunch how only the BBC could have made Yes Minister and its joyous successor Yes, Prime Minister.
The audience numbers were poor for the first series but the BBC continued backing the concept until it became an iconic British television success story.
So far as anyone knows Sir Antony, who owned the IP rights with co-creator Jonathan Lynn, never contemplated moving on to ITV or Channel 4 to make more money.
Will the Great British Bake Off be a success for Channel 4? Almost certainly not - well, not on the scale that flowed from its slot on BBC One.
It may be illogical in the multi-channel age but viewers - certainly many Bake-Off viewers - still mentally attach channels to programmes. Take a 10 million audience-sized programme on BBC One and move it to BBC Two and you will be lucky to retain 5 million.
Channel 4? Three to four million, although those sort of numbers will probably work for them commercially. Overall, the programme will shed millions of viewers.
How many millions will depend on what happens next. Rather foolishly Channel 4 seems to have done the deal without consulting the presenters - who have said they will not be joining the C4 production (we're "not going with the dough" they said in a joint statement shortly after the announcement).
The deal could quickly develop a very soggy bottom if the BBC decides to hijack all the existing presenters using some of the millions saved to enhance their contracts and launch a new series - Truly, Deeply, Authentic Baking. Many will now be urging the BBC to do just that.
It would be the opposite of the Clarkson situation. Mary Berry, who so far as we know has never thumped any producers, could continue with the original version without ad breaks.
But all of that is only the beginning of the problems for Channel 4.
At this week's IBC conference in Amsterdam, Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, was asked whether he thought Channel 4 should be privatised.
He said he would be very happy with such a thing - it would free the channel from present constraints.
Two days later at IBC, Lord David Puttnam, former deputy-chairman of Channel 4, said such a thing would be a disaster and would not even be in Sir Martin's interests.
We don't know what Lord Puttnam thinks about the Bake-Off snatch because he headed off immediately to Rome for a meeting with the Pope on climate change - but we can guess.
The most damaging thing that Channel 4 has done to itself is to undermine many of its arguments against privatisation.
Until now, in the midst of the Brexit crisis and the departure of John Whittingdale, Channel 4 was winning the argument against privatisation. Not anymore. This is the action of a selfish, predator private enterprise company - not, as it wishes to be known, a public service broadcaster devoted to coming up with its own edgy innovative programmes.
Why bother doing that when you can outbid another public service broadcaster for a safe, warm, comfortable programme aimed at Middle England.
Was that what Channel 4 was set up for?
Naturally, Lord Michael Grade, former chief executive of Channel 4, was not slow off the mark in claiming that the channel had shot itself in the foot. These days Grade is an arch-privatiser having argued the exact opposite in the past.
The trouble is, in future it will be very difficult to argue against the Lord Grade and his well-established Conservative political contacts.
In prehistoric, four-channel times when there was broadcasting regulation, the then ITV broadcaster for London outbid - snatched - Dallas from the BBC and was made to give it back.
It may sound comical now but the Channel 4 board should ponder whether money and reputation might be saved if the £25 million per year acquisition were handed back, voluntarily, to the BBC for £15 million.
It won't, of course, and Channel 4 will therefore have to live with the consequences that will cost ultimately much more than £10 million each year, for three years.