First they came for Big Bird. Now, it’s the Tent.
Just last week came word that Netflix had picked up the next three seasons of “The Great British Baking Show,” plucking one of PBS’s crown jewels from right under its toque. It’s just the latest coup for a paid service over the stalwart public television network, which, if you’ll recall, lost the first run of episodes of “Sesame Street” to HBO in 2015.
Perhaps this is the way of the world. Perhaps this is only the next logical step after the production company responsible for the ever-charming baking-competition series, known as “The Great British Bake Off” across the pond, took the series from the BBC to Channel 4 in England, reportedly over money.
That move prompted daffy but clever hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins and judge Mary Berry, the U.K.’s reigning queen of baking, to depart the series, leaving behind only one original cast member: Paul Hollywood, the judge everyone loves to hate.
The “new” season that drops this Friday — Season 8 in Britain, where it already aired, and Season 5 in the United States, almost as challenging as that whole Celsius-to-Fahrenheit conversion — replaces Berry with Prue Leith and the Giedroyc-Perkins duo with Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig. It maintains the same format of signature, technical and showstopper baking challenges, as well as the white tent plopped down in the bucolic English countryside.
But will it maintain its soul? Maybe. Probably? I have shied away from any coverage of the new season, for fear of spoilers about the winner.
Still, I like an underdog. I mean, that’s part of the appeal of the show, right? You want to root for the poor soul whose cake toppled, or just merely disappointed Mary Berry. It’s how I feel about PBS, too. It could just be my old-soul, “Masterpiece”-viewing self talking. Or it could be that at a time when public television and the arts in general are increasingly under fire, I relished the fact that PBS had this show in its arsenal. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the series brought in a good number of viewers who would never have watched PBS otherwise (or participated in many amusing Twitter conversations with it). I can only hope the show helped boost membership numbers.
Can you imagine if “Downton Abbey” had switched networks partway through its run? Mrs. Hughes, fetch the smelling salts!
Netflix has somewhere in the neighborhood of 57 million subscribers in the United States. PBS is available to everyone, whether streaming (yes, with a PBS membership you could even do a Netflix-style binge on an entire season at once) or as part of a cable subscription or over the air. At least one recent report pegs the number of American households solely relying on antennas for TV service at 15 percent. (Based on roughly 126 million households, that’s almost 19 million.)
Sure, there are more pressing issues of access than a baking show. But why is this one we should be worrying about anyway? Why should the network that brought the series to the country become a victim of its own success? And I say this as someone who has a Netflix subscription!
Netflix already has a healthy stock of food content. I am completely hooked on “Somebody Feed Phil,” the food and travel series that follows “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal around the world (which, ahem, was known as “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having” in a previous incarnation on PBS). Then there’s “Chef’s Table,” “Nailed It!” and a whole crop of other series.
If only PBS could have been left this one piece of the pie.
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