Programmers flock to pubcaster's Showcase

LONDON — Despite 9/11 and a dire global media economy, attendance at pubcaster BBC’s annual Showcase program market, which kicked off Feb. 24, is set to reach record levels.

The event gives a much-needed lift to jaded buyers after a lackluster Mipcom and disastrous NATPE.

“We’d planned for numbers to be down this year, but with 420 delegates registered, I think we’ll have our highest attendance yet,” says a BBC Worldwide insider. “At this rate, we’ll be turning buyers away.”

So how come? Is it the pubcaster’s newfound commercialism, epitomized by gameshow “The Weakest Link,” worth a reputed $13 million a year to the Beeb? Or is plain-speaking leader Greg “cut the crap” Dyke persuading buyers to travel to the wind-swept coastal resort of Brighton in search of a primetime hit?

Or does the general falloff in prices make BBC shows a bargain that few can resist? “Our programming represents extraordinary good value for money,” is the hardly surprising verdict of BBC Worldwide CEO Rupert Gavin.

With the international success of “The Weakest Link” and “Tweenies,” the preschool successor to “Teletubbies,” global acquisitions execs no longer regard Showcase as a place to weigh the latest slug of costume drama, worthy wartime docu or blue-chip natural history series.

Focus is more likely to be on programs offering high entertainment value like hardy perennial “Top of the Pops” than classic BBC fare with its obligation to inform and educate as well as entertain.

“These days it’s difficult selling fiction to the big European markets, so we’ve had to adapt our pitch accordingly,” says a senior Worldwide man. “It is true that Greg Dyke is more interested in international and commercial matters than his predecessor was, but the strategy that is working for us was in place before Greg arrived.

“Take our co-production arrangement with Discovery” (partners on “Walking With Beasts,” “Walking With Dinosaurs” and “The Blue Planet”). “Working with Discovery has really sharpened us up a lot. They demand knock-out pics and special effects that stand out on the small screen.”

In cash terms, the more focused and marketing-led approach to international sales is paying off.

For the third year running, revenue from program exports (including format sales) is up by around 20%; last year, exports were worth $238 million compared with $207 million in 2000.

“We’re bucking the trend,” boasts Gavin, whose hard-nosed commercial attitude has brought much-needed dynamism to the pubcaster. “… That’s not far short of a phenomenon.”

A rival agrees — up to a point: “BBC Worldwide’s sales operation is a seriously impressive outfit. But they could do better. They only concentrate on a very small part of their catalog. The Worldwide overheads are too high, and their after-sales service is poor.”

Today, BBC sales represent half of all U.K. TV exports, and the broadcaster’s private rivals are struggling to keep up.

The global downturn has, if anything, helped the pubcaster’s international sales drive as overseas broadcasters snap up big sellers.

But as commercial broadcasters everywhere learn to live with declining revenues, can BBC Worldwide sustain its impressive recent export performance?

“The next year will be a good deal more challenging,” admits director of international TV Mike Phillips. “More than ever, private channels will focus on the shows that can produce the right kind of audiences for them.”

All the indications are that the BBC will do its best to oblige.

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