Blighty TV distribs chart overseas course

Brit execs want united front to offset exports drop

LONDON — British TV distributors know they will always be a distant second to Hollywood, but they have devised plans to up the U.K.’s 9% share of the global programming export market.

At the British Television Distributors Association’s first conference Wednesday, Brit TV sales execs concluded the way forward is through co-production deals with international partners to make big “event” shows, targeting under-served programming niches, consolidating their numbers to create a more united front, and even asking the government to provide lottery cash for TV drama.

The backdrop, however, was a decline in British programming exports, down 11% to £240 million ($338 million) in 1999 (Daily Variety, Sept. 20). Drama was identified as the key problem.

Mike Phillips, chairman of the BTDA and BBC Worldwide’s director of international television, said that the U.K. must wake up to the fact that its drama doesn’t travel particularly well.

Lottery for drama coin

This led Michael Grade, ex-TV exec and chairman of Pinewood Studios, who chaired the conference, to float the idea of accessing lottery coin for drama productions filmed for TV. In particular, this would apply to TV movies, considered to be a niche area in which British producers could make inroads overseas.

The proposal will be put to U.K. culture minister Chris Smith, whose keynote speech opened the conference, dubbed “Brit TV: The Global Challenge.” But convincing the government that profitable broadcasters need help to create exportable drama may be difficult.

Grade also questioned the quality of Britain’s TV sales people, arguing that if the BBC had triumphed with “Walking With Dinosaurs,” why couldn’t the pubcaster use that kind of success to force bundled packages of programming upon buyers, as Hollywood does.

Cooler heads maintained that only Hollywood has the clout to do output deals, and even that is eroding.

Peter Bazalgette, creative director of Endemol Entertainment UK and fresh from the success of “Big Brother” on Channel 4, said enticing overseas buyers may be a better option.

“The American networks and cable companies have realized that we’re a powerhouse of ideas,” Bazalgette said, this despite the fact that “Brother” is a Dutch format.

And while co-production with North American or European partners seemed a logical solution to creating event TV, several execs were concerned about complications in terms of rights.

The co-production success story is the BBC, which partnered with Discovery on “Dinosaurs,” and was responsible for nearly half of the U.K.’s $532 million take in international TV sales in 1999.

That figure was 6% above 1998 on the back of the BBC’s ongoing kids-TV phenom “Teletubbies” — without the show’s merchandizing income, sales of British TV exports overall would have declined.

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