BBC on a selling spree to up profits

BBC Worldwide’s annual sales show for buyers from around the world reflects the broadcaster’s need to make a profit from exporting its shows to close the gap in funding after the recent licence-fee settlement in Britain.

For five days, 560 self-confessed telly addicts from Argentina to India fill 500 TV booths in Brighton’s conference centre for marathon viewing sessions of shows such as Life on Mars, Planet Earth and Robin Hood.

The attendance reflects Britain’s position as the world’s second biggest TV show exporter, behind the United States, with BBC Worldwide ranking as Europe’s top programme distributor. The group sells 40 000 hours of programmes a year.

Increasing profits at BBC Worldwide has become crucial to the corporation since the recent licence fee settlement. Though the annual fee will rise to £151 by 2012, this is well below what the BBC wanted.
As a result, BBC bosses are pushing for Worldwide to double its profits over the next five years, to £200million by 2012. Last year, BBC Worldwide—which is also responsible for DVD distribution and magazine publishing—made £89million.

As well as an increase in advertising at the bbc.com international website and advertiser-backed sites for some popular shows, BBC Worldwide will need to increase the cash it gets from selling shows.

Exporting TV programmes is big business for Britain’s production companies. Global sales rose 21% to £632million in 2005, according to figures released by the independent producers’ group Pact. BBC Worldwide accounts for more than half of British television exports, and the directors at the global TV sales division see their sales climbing £20million this year to £190million.

Selling shows to overseas broadcasters and British channels is Worldwide’s biggest profit driver. But the idea of making money out of licence fee-funded productions has raised eyebrows. The group puts that down to a misunderstanding of how and why it exists: to maximise the value of the BBC’s assets for licence fee payers in Britain.

The commercial arm’s director of content and production, Wayne Garvie, says that BBC Worldwide is crucial to keeping up the corporation’s programming quality and to supporting independent producers. “We are the only British media company with the scale to ensure that British creativity gets to where it should be,” he says.

Shuttling between a DVD pick-up desk and their booths, the international buyers trawl through sitcoms, documentaries and drama. There is a buzz around the upcoming talkshow-themed sitcom The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, starring Jennifer Saunders. Others have their eye on the toddler-targeted show In the Night Garden, from the team behind Teletubbies. After the runaway success of local versions of Strictly Come Dancing, buyers are also looking for similar formats to licence so they can tap into the enduring trend for family-based entertainment.

The annual showcase in Brighton pitches new shows through cinema-style screenings and even themed dinners. This year’s drive to sell the latest retelling of Robin Hood involved a Sherwood Forest-style feast followed by archery. This year’s showcase also tested 100 “digibooths” where buyers could view “BBC Recommends” clips and store favourites.

Tony Iffland, chief executive of Australia’s UK.TV, says his audience appreciates a certain “realness” in British TV. “It’s not plastic. There’s a great sense of real lives and real people.”

Thomas von Hennet is in Brighton to pick up on new British-made TV trends. As head of documentaries at the German commercial channel ProSieben, he also wants to tap into the BBC’s heritage. “In Germany the BBC has a certain reputation. It’s a synonym for authentic content, for factual correctness,” he says. “There is something I would call the ‘BBC bonus’ in the public perception.”—Â

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