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BBC Studios Content Boss on Finding the Next Wave of Global Hits

Almost a year into running BBC Studios Productions, a major part of Ralph Lee’s task is securing more third-party commissions and generating new breakout hits that can sit alongside “Doctor Who,” “Dancing With the Stars” and its other top performers.

BBC Studios produces for British pubcaster the BBC, and now also for third parties. This week it landed orders for true-crime series “The Bust” for Viacom’s Channel 5 in the U.K. – a direct rival of the BBC – nature show “Fierce Queens” for Quibi, and factual series “One Cup, A Thousand Stories,” for China Mobile’s Migu.

Lee wants to do more outside the work for the BBC. “In the just under the year that I have been here I have seen a handful of mostly U.K. and relatively small scale non-BBC commissions turn into a really significant slate,” he said, noting the likes of “Good Omens” for Amazon and podcast series “Stay Free: The Story of the Clash” for Spotify.

“It’s really crucial for us that we are accompanying the BBC work with work for other clients – it keeps the organization fresh, cutting edge and healthy. It makes us more competitive and in line with the rest of the creative sector.”

BBC Studios also has a sizable distribution arm. A trip to its huge Showcase sales fair in Liverpool at the start of the year shows the importance of the existing international hits, the epic natural history shows, “Sherlock” and other key dramas, and in unscripted, the likes of “Top Gear.” All do great business, but the pressure is on to add to the roster.

“It’s partly about repositioning BBC Studios Production from being something perceived as being defined by brilliant legacy titles – by natural history, “Dancing With the Stars,” “Top Gear,” and “Doctor Who,” and trying to see it defined by new titles,” Lee said. “Whether that is with shows for the BBC or other clients, we want to be known for innovation, authorship, and for the talent that drives our shows, not just the legacy work.”

The production business used to to just service the BBC. Now that it is working with other broadcasters and platforms as well, the chances of getting the next international breakout show are higher, according to Lee. “Our position now gives us more opportunity to do that than when we were singularly focused on the BBC,” he said. “To generate the big shows, franchises, and hits of the future, you have to have creative brains trying out new things in different genres. You have got to be working with clients that will back them and grow them over time.”

In terms of the legacy shows, the BBC Studios team is hoping a new-look team on “Top Gear” will rev up a show that had started to struggle on its home turf in the U.K. The ratings for the new series are good, and building and we’re hoping the U.K. success will translate globally,” Lee said. “It’s a hard show to relaunch, but the creativity at the heart of it is right, and the journalism is right.”

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