International powerhouse BBC Studios is leaning heavily into new and expanding SVOD partnerships with the likes of Discovery and its global-facing BritBox service as it looks to weather the COVID-19 era.
In an exclusive interview, Paul Dempsey, president of global distribution, tells Variety that BBC Studios’ landmark Discovery deal, through which the “Blue Planet II” and “Seven Worlds, One Planet” distributor is supplying around $393 million worth of natural history programming to Discovery’s forthcoming streamer, is a “good example of what you can expect to see from us over the next few years.”
“Over time, we’re moving from having a content sales business driven by relationships with 600-700 customers around the world and our own linear services, to a world that will be dominated by a group that’s more global in their outlook — large customers with whom we’ll have deeper relationships,” says Dempsey. Look no further than Mira Nair’s “A Suitable Boy” — one of BBC Studios’ most promising titles at its pre-lockdown Showcase event in Liverpool in February, which ultimately landed with Netflix for global rights (excluding North America).
However, the distributor’s biggest content deal to date is its Discovery pact, struck in April 2019, which sees BBC Studios programs powering the non-scripted giant’s new streamer, which Discovery boss David Zaslav on Wednesday promised would be a “differentiated service.” Sources indicate that the fall-launching platform, which Discovery execs have recently begun “pushing hard” among the production community, has the feel of a youth-skewing cable network with a lifestyle and natural history focus.
Meanwhile, BBC Studios and ITV Studios’ ‘Best of British’ streaming proposition BritBox, currently available in North America and set to launch in Australia later this year, will expand into 25 markets, though there’s no decision “on which market to go to next, or whether it will be a single market or cluster of markets,” says Dempsey, noting ongoing discussions with ITV.
BritBox, which launched in the U.S. in March 2017, has been cautious in its expansion — and perhaps more successful for it. The service surpassed 1 million subscribers earlier this year, having capitalized on an underserved female audience over age 45.
“We’ve accelerated well beyond [1 million] in the last few months, and we’re ahead of the plan that we had for this year,” says Dempsey, highlighting a “significant uptick” in subscribers over the pandemic period. The plan, now, is to complement BBC Studios channels around the world with complementary OTT services such as BritBox.
Dempsey, who was promoted to the New York-based president of global distribution role last year, has been swift in ruling himself out of the running for the BBC Studios CEO job — one of the most sought-after distribution jobs in the U.K., which Tim Davie will soon vacate to take on the BBC’s top job of director general.
“There’s no other reason, other than I’ve got the job I want to be doing now,” says Dempsey, calling North America the “center of gravity” for the distribution behemoth’s relationships, particularly with the streamers.
“I’ve waited for these circumstances where we’re now clearly moving into that world where there’s a significant population of OTT products that will be developing. This is the moment. I like to be at the heart of the action.”
But as platforms like the Discovery SVOD — which is rumored to be called “Discovery Plus” — and an expanded BritBox service get ready to launch, Dempsey faces a “complicated jigsaw” around rights, and sating long-standing linear customers who require content, particularly in a period where strong, new titles are gold dust.
“We’re incredibly forensic in our financial modelling and strategic thinking about how to manage this period,” says Dempsey, adding that a robust pipeline doesn’t hurt. The BBC Studios catalogue, including both in-house and third-party content, is estimated to total around 48,000 hours.
Even still, around 70 productions, including big money-makers like “Top Gear,” had to be halted during lockdown. Dempsey says BBC Studios will fall back on a “strong underlying business,” but concedes there will be an impact later in the year. Annual results normally come out in July, but this year’s accounts will instead be released in September.
Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs, said in June that there would be no dividend to the BBC this year from BBC Studios — a figure that last year amounted to £65 million ($81 million) — due to “the collapse of production and advertising revenues.” However, Dempsey says this isn’t yet confirmed.
Last year, BBC Studios reported £81 million ($106 million) in profits across its production and distribution divisions — reported collectively for the first time since the company’s two divisions merged in 2018. Across its 2018/19 commercial activities, profits amounted to £159 million ($208 million).
“We will be profitable this year — both in terms of profit and cash,” says Dempsey, who highlights that sales activity is up 10% over last year. “We’ve taken lots of mitigating actions to reduce our cost base and our exposure to allow us to withstand the scenarios that we’ve modelled.”
The pandemic has also provided an opportunity for BBC Studios to give back to its client base.
“Within two weeks of lockdown happening around the world, we were on the front foot, communicating with customers about how we could help them in the spirit of partnership,” says Dempsey, noting the distributor has allowed partners to “have greater use of our content” at no extra cost, and has licensed specials for more affordable fees. A portion of sales from the Alan Bennett “Talking Heads” monologue series, featuring the likes of Jodie Comer and Imelda Staunton, was even donated to the National Health Service.
Meanwhile, the executive, who sits on the BBC Studios investment board, says the outfit is “continuing to invest” in financing new projects, and considering “a pipeline of new ideas.”
“I don’t fear there’s any less creative endeavour,” says Dempsey. “I’m hoping we can catch up with the productions that have been delayed and have a future pipeline to get excited about as well.”