25 March 2017

The Great British Bake-Off

The Great British Bake Off (GBBO) is a 10-episode show that started in the UK in 2010.

It is hugely popular. The finals of October 2016 were the most-watched show that year, with 14M viewers. For context, it's up there with the England vs Slovakia soccer game of June 2016 (14M viewers), the World Cup soccer finals of July 2014 (15.0M viewers), and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee of 2012 (14.7M viewers).

I think the show is so popular because of its format. It keeps some parts from MasterChef, introduced in the 1990s, but also adds its own twist. The MasterChef format is: cooking meets reality TV's cutthroat competition fueled by drama. It features professional chefs judging and eliminating contestants every episode. It's a recipe for great entertainment.

GBBO keeps the competitive structure from MasterChef, but makes it is much friendlier, and it tones down the ruthlessness and drama. The judges themselves admit that it appeals to children, grannies, workers, everybody, because it's gentle. For example, when a MasterChef contest starts, the contestants run throughout the kitchen to grab tools and ingredients right away. In contrast, the GBBO contestants are given their own appliances and ingredients, and choose their own recipes for their Signature and Technical Challenges. They are often caught on camera comforting each other and joking with the two comedians, who add comic relief to stressful situations (although some viewers could find their humor cringeworthy at times). In the finals, they keep 3 contestants as opposed to only 2, so that losers congratulate the winner right away instead of being disappointed.

GBBO has only two judges, not three. Other competition shows like Britain's Got Talent have three because they vote on accepting or rejecting a contestant. This vote is public and recorded on camera sometimes with much drama. The GBBO judges on the other hand are always deliberating privately, and nearly always reach a consensus on who they're kicking out.

Another appealing feature of GBBO is the setting of the competition. MasterChef takes place in a warehouse, with lots of steel accessories. It looks stressful. GBBO takes place in a luminous tent placed in a very green and bucolic countryside. The transitions between Challenges are shots of sheep and tree leaves. It's a much more pleasant viewing experience.

The protocol at the end of each GBBO episode also focuses on the positive parts. They first announce this week's Star Baker, which awards a silver Sheriff star to the week's best baker (Star Baker was added in Season 2). Star Bakers wear the star in the next episode, until the next Star Baker is announced. After the Star Baker is announced, they call the contestant who is eliminated. At that point the two comedians and a bunch of the other contestants hug them, sometimes in tears.

Another appealing feature (probably) introduced by MasterChef is that viewers can see multiple amateurs making the same dish in their own ways. Amateur contestants and professional judges offer practical advice, and show the recipe in action. GBBO's twist is the addition of nice illustrations of each contestant's Signature and Showstopper Challenges before they start making them. This gives the audience a visual expectation of each recipe. For the Technical Challenges, GBBO shows a standard professional version of the expected bake.

GBBO's Technical Challenges are also interesting because the two professional chefs judge blindly. This tells the audience that there are no favorites in the show.

Because GBBO focuses on the presentation and the contestants, they do not dig too deep in the details of the recipes. This has led critics of the first season observe that viewers learnt next to nothing about how they were actually making them. I think this is another reason for the show's success: the target audience is not bakers looking for new recipes, it's viewers looking for amazing-looking breads and pastries with a zest of drama.