The English lesson

It is the end of February in Liverpool. And actor Rowan Atkinson alias Mr Bean talks very seriously about being Jules Maigret to a room packed with TV buyers, media and trade. Atkinson is playing the celebrated policeman from writer Georges Simenon’s series first published in 1931 in two new TV films. These will be screened by UK’s ITV. But it is BBC Worldwide, which is hosting the event where Atkinson is speaking, that will distribute the films globally.

 

Sherlock Wolf Hall
Actors from Sherlock (left) Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman and Wolf Hall Mark Rylance. The TV content market in the UK offers interesting lessons and insights for the Indian one

We are at BBC Showcase, the market place for BBC Worldwide. The £1 billion commercial arm of the BBC is the largest distributor of television programming outside of the US studios. Sherlock, Top Gear and Strictly Come Dancing are some of its biggest money spinners across the world. The BBC Showcase, now in its 39th year, is a marketplace where this year over 700 buyers from across the world descended. They sat for hours at a bank of 600 screens trying to sample as much of the 2,500 hours of programming on offer. This includes some very interesting natural history programming The Hunt which looks at the relationship between the predator and his prey and Shark which captures everything about how sharks live, mate, even clean their teeth! Then there is Wolf Hall based on Hilary Mantel’s novel of the same name and Interceptor about the guy who listens to telephone conversations, in the interest of security.

As a content market though the BBC Showcase in Liverpool has a built-in skew for factual/non-fiction programming. That is because roughly half of host BBC Worldwide’s billion dollar top line comes from drama. The rest comes from factual/natural history programming. Showcase, the programming it offers and the buyers who flock to it, underline two critical things about the media business that India could do well to learn.

British content sells, seriously. The country is the largest exporter of formats and the second largest exporter of TV content after the US. For a country that ten years back was looking at a shrinking TV production industry, that is a huge turnaround. Till then almost all programming was commissioned by broadcasters (much like India) who then kept all rights. A change in the terms of trade in 2003 mandated that IP or Intellectual Property had to be retained by the producer. The broadcaster could only licence it. This became a trigger for growth as production firms worked to create shows and formats that could scale across languages and markets. Till 2003 the only big format show out of the UK was Celador’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire. But after that formats took off. In 2004 the independent production sector had revenues of £1.6 billion. In 2014 it hit £2.8 billion, a bulk of which came from exports.

The second factor is the presence of not one but several high quality public service broadcasters such as BBC, ITV and Channel 4. They take a long term view on investing in content and are more willing to back high-quality and innovative shows both The Hunt and Shark took over two years each to make. Sherlock has just three episodes every season and each season takes roughly a year to 18 months. But this translates into a quality the world buys into. Last year the share of drama went from one-third to half of BBC Worldwide’s top line.

India’s hyper-fragmented, low margin TV content industry could learn a lot from that. So could the ministry of information and broadcasting. If it could set Prasar Bharati, which runs Doordarshan and All India Radio, truly free maybe we could hope to see some of the content investments BBC or ITV make.

Disclosure: The columnist was in Liverpool at the invitation and expense of BBC Worldwide.

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter @vanitakohlik

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