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Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Great British Bake-Off Finally Reaches America and We’re Loving It

It’s been a long time coming, but the UK’s colossal hit baking competition show has finally made it to US shores. As is often the case, The Great British Bake-Off didn’t make it here without a little trial and error first though.


Under my radar and apparently much of the rest of the country’s TV viewing audience as well, an American version of the GBBO was broadcast on US network TV in the summer of 2013. CBS called it The Great American Baking Competition and, unlike the original series, offered a $250,000 prize and a cookbook contract. They recruited original GBBO judge Paul Hollywood (I assume for continuity) but it wasn’t enough to give this reality show legs. The GABC was cancelled after one lackluster season.



And it’s no wonder. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy, famous for his “You might be a redneck” routine, was hired as the presenter and Marcela Valladolid, apparently a minor Food Network celebrity and expert in Mexican cuisine was the second judge. Rather than the presumably diverse feel the show’s producers were going for, the show ended up with a proverbial “soggy bottom.”

After that painful lesson, I was happy to hear that PBS, purveyor of quality British programming in the US and savior to many an American Anglophile, was actually bringing the real deal to their network. Cooking shows have not been foreign to PBS (i.e. Julia Child’s The French Chef) though reality competitions have not been a part of American public broadcasting’s remit.

It only takes one viewing to know that The Great British Bake-Off (renamed The Great British Baking Show for copyright reasons ) is not like any other food skills program. There are no profanity-laden tirades or cruel put-downs by judges/coaches. Contestants, while competitive and focused, are good sports and respectful of their fellow bakers. Meltdowns are rare so if Bingate is the most scandalous and heated things get then the British reputation for politeness and restraint is sealed forever. (And yes, though I knew it had to happen, I shed a tear when Iain was dismissed and didn’t try to blame it on Diana.)

As you may have guessed, rather than taking American audiences back to the first series of GBBO, we’ve been plopped down into the height of the show’s popularity with series five. This most recently broadcast series earned the UK’s best viewing numbers for the year for a non-sporting related event. Though I can’t find ratings figures for its run in the US thus far, on-line press reaction, social media and comments from my friends and co-workers would indicate people here are enjoying this refreshing twist on the reality cooking show.

As an American who tries to spread the gospel of British telly, I’m always happy when my countrymen get the opportunity to see for themselves what I’m constantly on about. With The Great British Baking Show, they get to witness the tension-breaking silliness and lovely compassion of presenters/comfort counselors Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc. They become familiar with the stern yet genteel British baking legend and almost octogenarian, Mary Berry. They learn about the proud British baking tradition and how it is still passed down from generation to generation as witnessed by the range of ages in this particular series.

I only hope PBS will continue to broadcast this quintessentially British series. Most affiliates have currently scheduled it on Sunday evenings right before Downton Abbey. I can see the cross appeal, but I hope producers and TV executives aren’t missing a very important aspect of GBBO. Much like its pool of contestants, The Great British Bake-Off is not just a quaint show for fans of costume drama, but a perspective into the diversity of the UK and how something like baking can bring them together.

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