“Downton Abbey” and “The Great British Baking Show” may not appear to have much in common beyond their country of origin. After all, one is a soapy period drama set in early 1900s England, while the other is a modern reality competition series centered on creating delicious baked treats.
But it’s not their content that makes them similar but their ability to attract viewership. “Downton Abbey” brought in a whole new audience, those who may not have cared for British period dramas before, to PBS on Sunday nights to witness the Crawleys’ latest crises or the downstairs servants’ struggles against the class system. Viewers who may have only occasionally watched PBS before tuned in for what became appointment viewing, and it became a commercial hit. To put it into context, the Season 4 premiere drew 10.2 million viewers, which handily outperformed every other drama on that night and was the largest audience for PBS since the 1990 premiere of Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War.” Sadly, PBS had to bid adieu to “Downton Abbey” when it ended after six seasons in early 2016.
The Sunday “Masterpiece” programming block has always performed well and continues to do so even if it’s not with the same numbers or buzz as “Downton Abbey.” Period drama offerings like “Call the Midwife,” “Poldark,” and “The Durrells in Corfu” bring in consistent viewership, alongside mystery series such as “Sherlock,” “Wallander” or “Grantchester’ (which returns for its third season on Sunday).
The problem is though that this is preaching to the converted. Chances are that if you watched “Downton Abbey,” you’re already the right audience to watch the usual “Masterpiece” offerings or stick around for the new ones such as “Victoria,” “Prime Suspect: Tennison” or the excellent modern Shakespearean drama “King Charles III.”
This is where “The Great British Baking Show” (renamed from “Great British Bake Off” because Pillsbury has the rights to the term “bakeoff” in America) could do what “Downton” accomplished, which is attract new blood. Although the reality series will probably not pull in “Downton”-level numbers, it’s a bona fide hit in England (garnering 16 million viewers for a recent finale) and has the potential to draw in new viewers who may not be the usual PBS audience. Also, “The Great British Baking Show” already has a loyal following stateside thanks to the first three seasons available to stream on Netflix, and food television is still going strong.
Even for the uninitiated, “The Great British Baking Show” is tantalizing programming. It offers an easy point of entry that doesn’t require previous knowledge of earlier seasons or even how to bake. Also, since the majority of American cooking competition shows focus on savory dishes (with a dessert challenge often exposing a chef’s weakness), this is a whole new world for many who don’t know the finer points of doughs and glazes and whatnot.
The timing is also perfect in that it offers a respite from the constant headlines and tweets, and is the epitome of a summer show. Above all, it’s nice. Genevieve Valentine at Vox had pointed out that it’s a pleasant show to watch because it’s all about small stakes, and this is true. But unlike other cooking competition shows, the point isn’t to win at all costs. You don’t become the Star Baker by shanking your competitor (metaphorically of course, but then again there is a show called “Cutthroat Kitchen” that’s all about sabotage) or stealing your opponent’s pea puree (although in one season, a contestant did accidentally use another’s custard). Many of them help each other or even offer emotional support. It’s a model for how we all should act these days.
Watch a preview for “The Great British Baking Show” below: