Pubcaster's commercial arm beefs up network biz

LONDON– The BBC has been endlessly on the defensive on the home front. The government accuses the pubcaster of profligacy while pundits insist that its flagship channel, BBC1, fails to deliver enough distinctive content.

Overseas, it is a somewhat different story, thanks in part to the increasing success of BBC Worldwide’s thriving channels business.

As recently as 2006, this part of BBC Worldwide’s activities was marginal to the strategy of the pubcaster’s commercial arm. The biz was worth a piffling £1.2 million ($1.8 million) a year and employed nine people.

Now, 41 channel launches later, BBC Worldwide Channels reported a profit of £39.2 million ($60 million) this month on sales of $399 million, not far behind home entertainment and content distribution. There is a staff of 500 based in London and overseas.

Worldwide’s suite of six webs — Entertainment, Knowledge, Lifestyle, kids web CBeebies, World News and BBC HD — are available in Australia, parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

But in one sense, the hardest work may be beginning as Worldwide Channels attempts to beef up its position in mature Western European markets and in the toughest entertainment market of all, the U.S.

“Two years ago, we said we wanted to launch CBeebies in the U.S.,” says Darren Childs, the managing director of channels.

His hope is that finally the preschool arm will bow across the Atlantic by next summer at the latest.

In an ideal world, all six channels would be packaged on U.S. cable networks, but Childs knows only too well that securing distribution deals at the right price is a challenge.

As it is, BBC America, available in 67 million homes according to the Beeb, continues to evolve as it attempts to strike the right balance between commercial success and a schedule that can also satisfy, say, the HBO crowd.

“I suspect the next stage of BBC America’s growth is going to be about the shows we make for the local market,” Childs says.

With this in mind, a deal was struck recently with ITV Studios America, the production arm of the pubcaster’s British commercial TV rival, to produce the first U.S. season of daytime reality show “Come Dine With Me.”

Worldwide hopes this will replicate the success of tyke skein “Penelope K,” commissioned by CBeebies in Australia before being rolled out on CBeebies webs globally, and become an international hit.

According to its website, BBC Worldwide provides a global showcase for the best of British creative talent. This means picking up BBC content plus independently produced programming that may air on rival channels back home.

Critics of BBC America complain that the web fails to provide enough upscale BBC fare.

Childs sees the need for a more defined editorial proposition for the U.S. “I think the day you take your eye off product development is the day your business starts to decline,” he says. “What’s going well in America is the distribution pieces are incredibly strong.”

Worldwide Channels are already available in territories such as Poland, but the biggest pushes can be expected to come in the big Western European markets (excluding the U.K., of course) where strong competition — or a weak pay TV market (like Germany) — has hitherto made progress slow.

The launch of all six branded webs is in the cards in Italy, while stand-alone localized channels will bow elsewhere in continental Europe.

“In developing markets, we’ve got (dominating) channels in each genre we’re in, and slowly we’re surrounding those bigger, more mature Western markets,” Childs says. “One thing I’ve realized in the 4 1/2 years I’ve been here is that in some of the more developed Western markets, it’s probably going to take us a little bit longer than we originally planned. It’s only recently that the BBC had any reputation for running successful international channels.”

Despite Childs’ considerable achievements — before joining the pubcaster, he ran global webs for Sony and MTV — he insists he won’t be satisfied until Worldwide’s six-channel portfolio is expanded to 10. He reckons there are opportunities to roll out a male-skewed web, a new kids’ service to fill the gap between CBeebies and CBBC, plus fresh ways of doing factual and lifestyle channels.

Some of these could be on air before the end of the year.

“A lot of our competitors have 10 channels,” Childs says. “We’ve got the shows because we’re tethered to this fantastic content pipe.”

While some might believe that in an online world, linear channels are a dwindling asset, Childs, who began his career working in IT for London’s financial community, sees a bright future for broadcasting.

“When I look around the world at developed markets, even though there is a huge proliferation of online content, people are spending more time watching TV than ever,” he says. “Broadcast television isn’t going to die any time soon. Nor do I see any degradation in its ability to grow its reach and numbers.

“The mistake will be if we don’t build on that success by taking the brand online and giving people an experience off the main TV set. That’s what we’re doing right now.”

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