The inexplicably sour reaction towards the overwhelmingly sweet Great British Bake Off and its contestants has been discussed in earnest over the course of its final week, with numerous root causes posited - jealousy, misogyny, a fervent antipathy toward brioche. However, there's something to be said for the notion that the series has created a sort of vitriol vacuum through comparison to other reality TV fare that certain punters cannot resist attempting to fill. A contestant being dismissively welcomed to the unforgiving world of yeast following a dough-related disaster is quite simply not scalding sustenance enough for some of those raised on the acidic diet routinely served up by the likes of Simon Cowell and company. But has the series' unequivocal success - demonstrated by the column inches devoted to this year's troop of intrepid bakers and the fact that the series will be making the jump to BBC1 in 2014 - proven that nastiness in reality TV is now a recipe to fall flatter than a mismanaged soufflé?
There is absolutely nothing malicious in any facet of Bake Off. The contestants all seem to get along swimmingly, warmly congratulating each other on successes and commiserating with evictees rather than bounding off stage toward the next round, fists pumping. There's a very real sense that judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood and hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins are generally invested in the progress of the contestants; with no vested interests in "teams" or divided camps, they're free to offer a shoulder to anyone and everyone who needs one. Even the setting, a cheerful marquee pitched in a field in Somerset, makes the dark, packed auditoriums of the X Factor or the Chairs of Damocles on the Voice look all the more foreboding.
With the sadism of Big Brother now relegated to a slice of ever-dwindling attention on Channel 5, it has been the X Factor that has picked up the torch for crushing the hopes and dreams of members of the public. Thousands enter, most are roundly booed or cackled at, and only a tiny number leave with their dignity and self-esteem intact. Whilst the live shows are still considerable Saturday night draws, as viewers have become wiser to the rarity of anyone actually graduating from the process to a full blown music career, it's the televisual freak show that remains the real attraction. Many have theorised that the replacement of chief interrogator Cowell with the altogether more placid Gary Barlow and the saccharine Nicole Scherzinger are the cause of the dip in the show's popularity. This year's return of Sharon Osbourne, no stranger to administering a good tongue lashing, plus Cowell's repeated assurances that, like a particularly derisive Terminator, he'll be back on the show at some stage are both attempts to remedy the ailing fortunes of the show.
Ironic then that it was Cowell's other baby, Britain's Got Talent, that has played such a sizeable role in the seachange now enveloping the reality TV landscape. While BGT has done little to temper the cruelties of the auditions, celebrating self-delusion with all the gusto of its sister show, the live finals take on a much congenial atmosphere. Spread out over just a week and thus avoiding the soap operatic nature of the "Finalists house" which apparently encourages rent to be paid via scandal and shenanigans, Britain's Got Talent packages itself as a showcase of the best that the nation has to offer, with no gladiatorial-style play-offs where the loser must be expelled in front of millions of baying viewers. Everyone's a winner, but for the unfortunate fact that only two can advance from each semi to the final. It was also the show that gave us Susan Boyle, a figure who ought, by the Code of Cowell, to have been laughed and harangued off the stage before she even uttered a note. And whilst the judges took it in turns to express incredulity that such a voice could project itself from such a person, there was no denying that she has helped shatter the expectations for the winner of such a format.
The X Factor has seen its viewing figures fall year on year, and is currently losing the storied battle for Saturday night to BBC's Strictly Come Dancing, another show that, like Bake Off, aims at a generally less contemptuous, more optimistic tone. In the case of Strictly, even those who really have no right stepping on to the dancefloor are welcomed - the image of John Sergeant triumphantly striding across stage whilst dragging (there really is no more elegant way of describing it) professional dance partner Kristina Rihanoff behind him has endured as a celebrated moment of Pythonesque surrealism that few would have thought a mere celebrity dance competition capable of.
It's impossible to imagine Bake Off with the cheer replaced by cynicism, the camaraderie of the contestants replaced by slagging matches and overzealous demonstrations of sore-losing. With the likes of Twitter and its ilk giving a mouthpiece to everyone who cares to cast aspersions on even the most innocent and well-intentioned of enterprises, it's inevitable there will be some negativity, particularly toward closed-format shows that allow the viewer no say in who stays and who goes, but the dissenting voices of the few don't appear to reflect the mood of the nation. The Great British Bake Off is great; the X Factor is just a bit too bitter.