23rd September 2016

Bake Off, Off and On

Worse, it may not even survive the move since most of its presenters have announced they will not be following the show to its new home. Channel 4 is reported to have outbid the Beeb by £10 million, but what exactly have they got for their money?

Worse, it may not even survive the move since most of its presenters have announced they will not be following the show to its new home. Channel 4 is reported to have outbid the Beeb by £10 million, but what exactly have they got for their money?

Bake Off is just one of many internationally marketable reality “TV formats”, a somewhat vague concept beloved of commissioning editors but notoriously hard to pin down. Formats are hugely popular in the international broadcast market, occupying a similar niche to the role of franchises in the retail and restaurant sectors – allowing a tried and tested formula to expand into new markets, benefitting from the original’s reputation while accommodating local variations where necessary.

The industry may blithely treat formats as licensable commodities, but this glosses over the fact that the law does not regard them as “things” in their own right. Instead it views them as bundles of disparate rights such as trade marks, goodwill, copyrights, contracts, unfair competition rights etc. and this is what counts if you need to turn to the law for help.

Of this bundle, trade marks and goodwill are among the strongest options - protect a show’s name and its general reputation, and you’re halfway there. A catchy name (Geordie Shore?) is a start. A unique look-and-feel (the distinctive Millionaire set and layout) can help, but accessories don't - of themselves - make a show, as Opportunity Knocks found out as long ago as 1989.

It would be nice for producers to be able to claim a copyright or two, but there’s a difference between ideas (not copyrightable) and a specific expression of ideas (copyrightable). Formats like Bake Off don’t rely on old-fashioned scripts or predetermined dramatic devices for their appeal. They’re more about bringing together a combination of factors and seeing where that leads, but that means they’re also typically too generic and insufficiently “original” to be protectable.

Say you’ve got a great idea for sticking a load of strangers together in a small space and filming what transpires – at that level of detail, you might be describing Big Brother, but it could also be Murder on the Orient Express. Or Cube. Or Huis Clos (mais oui! we're ever so cultured here at BrandSoup). You’ll need much more specificity before you get something you can lay exclusive claim too.

Contracts can be very useful, tying in specific presenters and broadcasters to exclusive deals. A lot of the discussion about Bake Off’s future prospects has centred on how its winning recipe has been so dependent on its presenters and judges. Can it do without Mel and Sue? Possibly. Can it survive without Mary? Maybe not. Paul? Say it ain’t so! (Could it even be the same away from BBC1? Hmmm…) The recent travails of Top Gear as it struggles to outgrow some fairly dominant personalities show how messy it can be to separate talent from other aspects of a show, especially when the two become synonymous in the minds of the viewing public.

At the end of the day, the idea of baking cakes in a tent is as old as village fetes and there’s clearly more to Bake Off than just that. Identifying exactly what, however, is a trickier question. And nailing that down in legal terms is harder still. By following the money to Channel 4, Bake Off’s producers need to be careful they don’t kill their golden goose – if they don’t own, or can’t control, or can’t understand what makes their show so special, they risk turning something as perfect and comforting as the finest Victoria sponge into something as unappetising and stodgy as the soggiest sunken soufflé.


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