Cats, clones and Lego in the BBC’s commercial future

The corporation accused of being predatory at home is taking steps to thrive abroad

Clara (Jenna Coleman) from the forthcoming series of the BBC’s sci-fi export ‘Doctor Who’, which has been growing its audience in North America. Photograph: BBC

Clara (Jenna Coleman) from the forthcoming series of the BBC’s sci-fi export ‘Doctor Who’, which has been growing its audience in North America. Photograph: BBC

 

The BBC has got a big new show coming up called The Hunt, which “celebrates nature’s cleverest and most determined predators and their elusive prey”.

It could be the blurb for a current affairs documentary about the Conservative Party and its bruised “reform” target: the BBC as it exists today. Instead it’s one of those epic natural history series filmed over three years and 35 countries and produced by Alastair Fothergill, a long-term associate of David Attenborough, of whom even the Tories approve.

The Hunt is bound to get its claws on “worth the licence fee alone”-style acclaim, while simultaneously making the BBC and its co-production partners some cash. The broadcaster’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, pictures one of the stars of The Hunt – an ominously moody member of the cat family – in its just-published annual report, listing it as one of the “new and exciting” programmes it will bring global audiences.

The financial year just gone for BBC Worldwide was not a dull one for the organisation that aspires to “build the BBC and UK creative industries around the world”, as well as commercialising BBC brands in its home market. This Christmas, for example, will see the arrival on toy request lists of Doctor Who-themed Lego sets, and BBC Worldwide has already collected millions from the licensing deal.

Outside the UK, the BBC’s biggest commercial market is North America, where Doctor Who has been luring an increasing number of viewers to the BBC America channel at a time when more than half of US cable networks have seen their TV ratings decline.

In recent years, London-based BBC executives have sallied across the Atlantic to oversee BBC America’s original commissioning, the most successful of which is sci-fi drama Orphan Black, co-produced with two Canadian companies, and starring Emmy-nominated Tatiana Maslany as a series of clones, not all of them sane.

It’s nice to have a fresh hit. The BBC may not do much to promote the show in the UK, but BBC Worldwide is basking in an Orphan Black glow, mentioning it same sentences as Doctor Who and Top Gear, and hailing it for having established itself as “a core franchise for North America”. The business is also doing okay out of the transition to on-demand consumption, with deals to sell home-produced shows such as Sherlock and Happy Valley to subscription video-on-demand services identified as “core revenue drivers”. Last year, its digital content sales surpassed its linear TV sales in the region for the first time.

All this sounds like BBC Worldwide is doing a grand job at exporting British culture around the world in a way the British government should be delighted to champion. Instead, it pays lip service to these achievements, while concentrating instead on slashing its funding at home.

“Turns out people all over the world are pretty perplexed as to why our government would want to mess with the @BBC,” tweeted a dismayed JK Rowling. Beyond its shores, the BBC has a reputation, and not just of the World Service variety. Yet the UK government seems quite complacent about the role of the organisation in perpetuating British soft power abroad.

The BBC itself is not. It looks at what is happening in the global entertainment market and it worries that it is not big enough. Its revenues of £5 billion – about £1 billion of which comes from the commercial activities of BBC Worldwide, and most of the rest from licence fees – are about a quarter of those of 21st Century Fox and a sixth of Disney’s.

Last year, BBC Worldwide decided BBC America could not survive as “an independent channel” and so it sold a 49.9 per cent stake in it to the US-owned AMC Networks to gain more bargaining power with big pay-TV platforms. As a result, there was a 30 per cent jump in the sum BBC Worldwide’s activities returned to the BBC, with the total of £226.5 million including net proceeds of £64.5 million from the AMC deal.

In a consolidating US cable market where one-time predators look more like prey, BBC America needed an ally. So it pocketed the one-off gain. It sold off part of the empire. The problem with this is that from now on its profits from this market will have to be shared with AMC.

But faced with drops and diversions in licence fee income, BBC director-general Tony Hall says he wants BBC Worldwide’s returns to the BBC to increase by almost a quarter over the next five years, which he admits “will not be easy”. There will be more cats, more clones, more co-productions, more Lego. Like The Hunt, it’s about survival.

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