BBC commercial arm sees more buyers at mart

LONDON — No one goes to the British coastal resort of Brighton in February for the weather. But it is an especially good time of year to hunker down in darkened rooms, watch lots of TV and rub shoulders with BBC screen talent.

For more than 20 years, international program buyers have braved the gray skies and seaside chill of this out-of-season holiday town to check out the latest shows from the BBC and, lately, a fair number of programs made by third-party producers distributed by BBC Worldwide.

The 35th BBC Worldwide Showcase market, which ran Feb. 26 through March 2, was no exception.

With some 550 buyers at the mart, up 12% compared with 2010, sales topper Steve Macallister expected it to be a strong year for BBC Worldwide. “Last year, we had a lot of new buyers from Asia, but this year we’re seeing new delegates attending from Central and Eastern Europe,” he says.

The importance of Showcase to the BBC’s commercial arm is clear. The sales spree brings between £40 million-£50 million ($65 million-$81 million) of revenue, roughly a fifth of BBC Worldwide’s total annual earnings from sales and distribution, last year worth $436 million.

Of late, the reputation of British TV drama has taken a bit of a hit, as high-end U.S. shows like “Mad Men” continue to set the bar high.

But U.K. TV fiction is still making a splash in foreign markets, thanks to fare such as “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as an updated version of the sleuth, Italian crime caper “Zen,” and the ubiquitous “Doctor Who.”

“We are seeing drama sales up in most parts of the world,” Macallister says.

“Zen” has sold to broadcasters in Australia (ABC), Denmark (DR), Holland (NPO), Japan (Wowow) and Sweden (SVT).

However, one handicap facing parts of BBC Worldwide’s drama catalog is that the U.K. channel controllers, who commission the shows, have increasingly hedged their bets by ordering new shows in batches of just three.

“Sherlock,” period piece “Upstairs Downstairs” and “Zen” were all made as three hourlong episodes. BBC1 subsequently commissioned six more episodes of “Upstairs Downstairs” but “Zen” has been axed by new BBC1 boss Danny Cohen, a situation that will hardly foster its overseas appeal.

Producing such a short run might sound like commercial suicide to international players used to selling drama series with a minimum of 13 parts. But BBC Worldwide toppers claim the BBC’s global reputation for high quality more than compensates for the eccentricities of its domestic commissioning decisions and, moreover, encourages European and U.S. partners to co-produce with BBC Worldwide.

“Fifty per cent of my time is spent looking for funding partners for our shows,” says New York-based Matt Forde, who is BBC Worldwide’s executive VP of sales and co-productions. “Such is the economics of TV nowadays that we can’t make these dramas without co-producers.”

Tim Mutimer, the firm’s senior VP for sales and distribution across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, adds, “What (separates us) from our competitors is that we can secure co-production funding from the likes of Italy’s Mediaset and Germany’s ZDF” — both collaborators on “Zen.”

Aside from drama, other growth areas at this year’s Showcase were the opportunities in Asia for video-on-demand and the increase in new digital terrestrial channels in key BBC markets, including Australia.

“Our VOD sales are up 38% year-on-year,” says Macallister, “driven by markets in Asia including South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and China, where we did our first VOD deal last year.

“In the past 18 months, eight DTT channels have launched in Australia,” he adds. “They all need content.”

Next year’s Showcase relocates from Brighton to Liverpool where the market will have a larger venue.

“We’ve outgrown this space. We’re emotionally attached to Brighton, but we’re almost turning clients away,” Macallister says.

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