The BBC and Channel 4 have had a huge public bunfight over “The Great British Bake Off.”
Talks between the BBC and Love Productions, the producer behind “Bake Off,” broke down a fortnight ago and Channel 4 swooped to secure the show for £75 million.
Speaking at the the Royal Television Society London Conference on Tuesday, BBC director of strategy and education James Purnell said the situation raised questions about how Channel 4 is regulated.
Channel 4 is owned by the government, but fully funded by advertising and other commercial income. It also has a unique remit to broadcast risky, public service programming, for which it answers to media regulator Ofcom.
Purnell said there is a “chasm” between the BBC and Channel 4’s regulatory arrangements. He questioned whether the deal for “Bake Off,” the biggest show on British television, sits well with Channel 4’s remit and said regulation of the broadcaster should be tightened up.
He explained: “You have a remit, which you say yourself, is ‘Born Risky.’ I think there’s real questions about whether ‘Bake Off’ qualifies for that and I think by doing that, all of us who love and support Channel 4 and it being in the public sector, you have given ammunition to the people who want to privatise it.”
Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt was on stage with Purnell and looked visibly shocked by his intervention. “I’m genuinely saddened to hear you take the approach that you have done,” she said.
In a heated exchange, Hunt argued that Channel 4’s regulatory arrangements are “extremely clear and very stringent.” She pointed that her previous experience as the controller of BBC1 means she is well placed to understand what is expected of both the BBC and and Channel 4.
Hunt said: “We don’t take a penny of public money, Channel 4 has existed from the very beginning by supporting independent producers and by operating a very effective cross-subsidy model. ‘Bake Off’ will be part of that strategy. I’m genuinely saddened to hear you take the approach that you have done, but I’m very confident about where we are in terms of what we deliver in terms of public impact.”
She added that Love Productions made a decision to walk away from the BBC, meaning Channel 4 did not poach “Bake Off” from the corporation.
“I understand how painful it is to lose franchises, but let’s be utterly clear, this is an independent producer who after three years of an increasingly dysfunctional relationship decided that they would no longer make the show for you,” Hunt explained.
“This was widely leaked. At that point, that franchise was in the market. I appreciate that’s very painful, but if I was sitting at the BBC, I’d be thinking quite long and hard about how that situation had arisen.”
She also argued that the BBC did not call for ITV to be muzzled when the commercial broadcaster poached “The Voice UK” earlier this year. Purnell said ITV operates “entirely commercially.”
In a later session at the RTS event, Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham also waded into the debate. He said it was “unhelpful to politicise” the argument, particularly when Britain’s broadcasting system is functioning effectively.
Here’s the full transcript of the BBC and Channel 4’s argument over “The Great British Bake Off:”
James Purnell: From a public service broadcasting point of view, the one question it does raise is we now see a real chasm between the way we’re going to be regulated [and Channel 4]. If you go and look at the charter and agreement there is an incredibly detailed guidance to Ofcom on children’s programmes, history programmes, religion, current affairs, presumes we should keep the 100-plus quotas we already have, detailed stuff on music and playlists. We wouldn’t wish that on Channel 4, but I think looking at what’s happened over ‘Bake Off,’ it does make us think that there’s a huge difference between the way we’re both regulated. We feel Channel 4 should be less regulated, because it doesn’t take public money, but there’s now a question to look at over whether the balance is right. I think something where there’s a rethink of the charter and agreement, so that it’s deregulated to a certain extent, we’re trusted to create a more distinctive BBC and then the regulation only comes if we fail to live up to our obligations. A similar thing for Channel 4, but lighter touch, is something that should be looked at.
Jay Hunt: That’s a slightly amazing thing to say, in the end we don’t take a penny of public money. I have a slight advantage here having sat at BBC1, controlling a billion pounds of public money, and in an identical role at Channel 4.
JP: You don’t think you should have any regulation at all?
JH: Let me just finish, James. Let me finish. I can tell you what it feels like to sit at Channel 4 where we’re measured by 42 metrics and have our SMCP [Statement of Media Content Policy] tracker coming in every single quarter, we have quantitative measures from Ofcom. I can also tell you what it’s like sitting on BBC1 and what that felt like. I totally understand that there are requirements of the BBC, you would expect that transaction when billions of pounds of public money is handed over. That hasn’t happened with Channel 4. I understand that you feel aggrieved about ‘Bake Off,’ but it’s just worth remembering that the BBC lost ‘Bake Off,’ Channel 4 didn’t take ‘Bake Off.’ Did you have a similar reaction on public policy when ITV took ‘The Voice’ — I don’t think you did.
JP: The audience have been extremely clear that they’re really saddened about the fact that they’re not going to have something that they absolutely love. You’ll have your own take on it, but I think something really precious will be lost. You are a public service broadcaster, you only have that resource as a public service broadcaster — the right to raise £1 billion. Of course you should be regulated, I’m saying you’re not sufficiently regulated. This raises a debate about whether Channel 4 can do what it wants.
JH: I understood what you said.
JP: You just didn’t answer it.
JH: No, I did answer it.
JP: We don’t take any public money, we shouldn’t have any regulation.
JH: I’m slightly surprised by you with a policy background thinking that Channel 4 doesn’t have any regulation. The regulation of Channel 4 is extremely clear and very stringent.
JP: You have extremely light content regulation.
JH: That is your view. That is quite simply not the case. In the nicest possible way, you haven’t done either of these jobs, so I can tell you what it feels like to sit in both of these jobs.
JP: In the nicest possible way, I was secretary state for culture and I did help set up Ofcom, so I understand how the regulation system works.
JH: I’m sure you do, but I’m telling you what it’s like from the coalface what this feels like and I can tell you it is a total, and I assume deliberate, misrepresentation of the situation that Channel 4 is not regulated.
JP: I didn’t say you are not regulated, I said you are too lightly regulated.
JH: I did hear what you said and I understand that. My view is that is not the case and I asked you a question, which you have also not answered, which is did you have a similar view when you lost a big franchise to ITV
JP: I think there’s a difference between it going to ITV, who operate entirely commercially. Cleary they have some public service obligations, but very different to Channel 4. You have a remit, which you say yourself, is ‘Born Risky.’ I think there’s real questions about whether ‘Bake Off’ qualifies for that and I think by doing that, all of us who love and support Channel 4 and it being in the public sector, you have given ammunition to the people who want to privatise it. I think, both in terms of regulation and what you have done to reopen an argument which I felt was very much closing, I think there are questions about whether this was the right thing to do.
JH: You’ve made your position very clear. We don’t take a penny of public money, Channel 4 has existed from the very beginning by supporting independent producers and by operating a very effective cross-subsidy model. ‘Bake Off’ will be part of that strategy. I’m genuinely saddened to hear you take the approach that you have done, but I’m very confident about where we are in terms of what we deliver in terms of public impact. I can tell you sitting at the coalface it does not on any level feel like light regulation.
JP: This is all said for a love of Channel 4 and wanting to see that argument for you to carry on in the public sector. You were the one who took ‘Bake Off.’
JH: James, just one thing that’s important to get in the room. I understand how painful it is to lose franchises, but lets be utterly clear, this is an independent producer who after three years of an increasingly dysfunctional relationship decided that they would no longer make the show for you. This was widely leaked. At that point, that franchise was in the market. I appreciate that’s very painful, but if I was sitting at the BBC, I’d be thinking quite long and hard about how that situation had arisen. But that is what happened. That is what happened.