How the BBC exports to the world

The 11 Doctors Plans are afoot to mark the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, which has been sold to more than 200 territories

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With the recent battering of the BBC, it's easy to forget how well received its programming is at home and abroad.

From natural history to CBeebies, UK output pulled a record 700 TV buyers to BBC Worldwide's exports showcase in Liverpool this week.

Before the annual event even started, the second series of Call the Midwife, currently lapped up by 10m UK viewers, joined the likes of Sherlock and Top Gear by selling to more than 100 territories.

But it was Doctor Who that hogged much of the limelight because, whether you like it or not, you can't avoid it in this 50th anniversary year.

Viewed in more than 200 territories, the phenomenon just keeps on growing, becoming the first British show to land the highly coveted cover of American magazine Entertainment Weekly - think Radio Times but much bigger - last July.

Not even Emmy and Golden Globe-winning Downton Abbey has managed that … yet.

Too weird?

But unlike the UK, where Doctor Who is seen as a family show, the median age of its American viewers is 42.

"So far it's been a very adult brand in the States," explains Richard De Croce from subscription channel BBC America.

BBC Worldwide

Call the Midwife
  • BBC-owned company has programme catalogue of 50,000 hours
  • Sells shows and formats made by the BBC and UK indies
  • Promotes the BBC's fifth public purpose of bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK
  • Hits include Top Gear, Sherlock and Call the Midwife (above)

"But we're beginning to see lots of teens coming in, so we can grow into a slightly different demographic."

The Christmas episode was watched by a record 2.4m viewers in the US and it's all hands on deck for 2013.

"It's a big year for us with the new companion, eight new episodes, and the 50th anniversary and Christmas specials," says De Croce.

Despite being peculiarly British, Doctor Who's appeal also crosses into non-English speaking audiences such as in France, Germany and Italy.

Francis Humble from TV Catalunya in Spain recalls a debate with colleagues over whether the show would draw viewers.

"Some of the programmers were saying it's too British, it's an institution over there; it's not the same here - people won't understand, they'll think it's weird.

"But enough loved it so we bought it. I remember a group of students on the bus and this girl was saying, 'Have you seen this wild Englishman in a box that's bigger on the inside than the outside?'"

"Just to hear her meant far more than ratings."

Willard Tressel, who bought Doctor Who last year for Latin American broadcaster DirecTV, says: "With sci-fi, you tend to get a very loyal audience so, whereas it may not be the highest-rated audience we've ever had, it's not a show I wouldn't have on air.

"It's a global phenomenon and we're glad to be a part of it."

Rise in co-productions

But British TV isn't just about Doctor Who or a revitalised drama portfolio. Documentaries still remain one of the most popular genres.

Start Quote

International buyers want much longer-running dramas”

End Quote Caroline Torrance Director of drama, BBC Worldwide

"We're very well known internationally for specialist factual," says Jo Sermon, who oversees factual output for BBC Worldwide. "But we're really trying to build our reputation in factual entertainment."

She's excited about a recent co-production deal with Chinese documentary channel CCTV 9, which also invested in the natural history series Africa and Wonders of Life.

"When you look at what they screen on CCTV 9, they are taking the world's best factual. They get an average audience of 90m. That's probably the most exciting area of growth for us."

In recent years, there has also been a rise in co-productions, which is likely to continue amid the frozen licence fee settlement.

"People come in at the beginning of the project, they're editorially involved and that's what helps fund these mega shows," Sermon reveals.

"Probably about 65-75% of the budget for some of these big landmarks comes from the foreign commercial marketplace."

Professor Brian Cox and little tiger Wonders of Life with Brian Cox was made with Chinese investment

The forward planning for big natural history shows means that producers at this week's showcase were already talking about investment in transmissions for 2017/18.

But, as an investor and exporter of BBC programmes, questions have been raised over whether BBC Worldwide is a commercial tail wagging the public-service dog.

There are concerns that it could lead to UK shows appeasing an international marketplace.

However, Sermon reckons British and foreign viewers aren't mutually exclusive: "You can often find a wonderful sweet spot of content that works brilliantly for a UK audience and also for an international audience, particularly in factual.

"Something like Africa will sell to pretty much every country in the world."

One of the shows creating a buzz at the Worldwide showcase was forthcoming BBC Two thriller Top of the Lake, co-directed by Oscar-winner Jane Campion and starring Mad Men actress Elisabeth Moss.

At least six organisations have invested in it but Caroline Torrance, who oversees drama at BBC Worldwide, says the programme works because of the strength of Campion's idea.

"She had a really clear editorial vision and the partners all bought into that ... A mish-mash of things doesn't ever work and you end up with something that doesn't appeal to anybody."

Strong slate

Top of the Lake also benefits from the increasing appetite for serial narratives, in which one central plot stretches over many episodes.

Elisabeth Moss Elisabeth Moss stars in BBC Two drama Top of the Lake

"It used to be that 'story of the week' was the only thing you could sell internationally but now that's changed because people watch drama by storing it and watching it all in one go," explains Torrance.

This can pose a challenge for selling UK dramas, which are usually commissioned for six-part runs, resulting in one week of programming if broadcast on consecutive days.

"Internationally, buyers want much longer-running series, so we often wait until the second or third series before we've really got something that is appealing," says Torrance.

With the recommissioning of Call the Midwife, Ripper Street and daytime drama Father Brown, she says they are "starting to get a catalogue of real returners".

The appetite for British programming helped the corporation receive a record £216m return in 2011/12 from BBC Worldwide - equal to around 10% of the spend by BBC Television.

Factual director Jo Sermon says she's feeling buoyant about the output: "There's some really good content coming through from both the BBC and indie sector - I think the record turnout is testimony to how strong the slate is."

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