British TV producers account for some 40% of the world’s widest-selling TV formats, but how is it that our small island can be so influential in the global $2.4bn format trade? This was the question posed to panellists at the Creative Content Summit, organised by UK Trade & Investment to take advantage of the presence of thousands of foreign business leaders in London for the Olympics.
As BBC Worldwide’s EVP for International Production, I took part in the panel. We looked at All3Media’s Undercover Boss, Shine’s Masterchef and our very own Dancing With The Stars(DWTS), known better to UK viewers as Strictly Come Dancing.
Background: DWTS has now been sold as a format to 42 countries. That means local versions with local celebrities, local judges and local production teams. In total, nearly 200 series of DWTS have been aired – in America alone, BBCW has produced 14 series to date, with 20m viewers not unusual. Both format sales and production around the world generate significant revenue for BBCW – and of course in turn the BBC. Meanwhile, Masterchef has sold as a format to 35 countries now, and Undercover Boss USA garnered one of the biggest non-sport TV ratings in history when it launched after the Superbowl.
As I see it, having pitched and sold to broadcasters all round the world, there are three factors that can account for British creations having such a high proportion of the global format business:
First, boringly, but importantly: economics. The UK has a large advertising market and a number of broadcasters with a public service remit, including of course the BBC which is funded by the licence fee. Good TV requires investment as well as love and ideas; real quality is hard to produce on the cheap.
Second, a diverse range of commissioning channels. In most territories of the world, the range of channels is narrower: mass-market commercial channels serving up soaps, sport, news and acquired programming. By contrast, you can’t imagine UK development producers taking the exact same programme idea into BBC Two, ITV1 and Channel 4 – the range of tastes is simply too broad. In this way, development producers, seeking to create next year’s smash hit, are forced to think more creatively about their formats.
The UK’s channel diversity is underpinned by a distinctive public service broadcaster (PSB) in the form of the BBC. Its remit allows producers’ minds to stray into programming areas that would be unthinkable in many other TV territories: the BBC has successfully broadcast recent series on astronomy, life in old age and urban social planning. And crucially, the BBC also makes high quality popular entertainment programming such as Strictly Come Dancing, not just the so-called ‘traditional’ public service genres of high culture or documentaries.
Interestingly, this same diversity in channel tastes can be found in two of the other leading countries in format creation: Netherlands and Israel. Both have channels that are prepared to commission radical programme ideas, and to challenge genres – look at the Israeli scripted format sales to the US about a troubled psychotherapist (In Treatment) and a bipolar government agent (Homeland).
The third and final factor is a national creative culture. Of course, this is harder to quantify. But the UK certainly has flourishing creative activity in literature, art, fashion and music, all of which surely attracts more people into the media. Moreover, like the Netherlands and Israel, it’s home to popular public figures who are outspoken, counter-cultural or iconoclastic – all essential qualities in the development room. And of course we Brits gain a huge national advantage in our creative industries by speaking the same language as in the world’s biggest media market, the USA. As David Cameron observed at the launch for the Creative Content Summit, the roles of Batman, Spiderman and Superman are all now played by British men.
It’s these three factors – diversity in channels, a creative culture, and dedicated money to spend on it – that in my view have made UK producers the superheroes of the global format trade.