Torin Douglas: Dinosaurs help save UK TV from global extinction

The UK media hasn’t had much of a chance to compete with the international media giants. Only BBC Worldwide is making its presence felt. By Torin Douglas

For the British, there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing the wannabe global media giants tearing themselves apart. The collapse of European pretenders Kirch Media and Vivendi is particularly welcome since it was never quite clear why the Germans and French (who are no good at television) should be catapulted into the global league, while the Brits (who are, by definition, great) couldn’t make the leap.

How could Kirch buy the rights to two World Cups, threatening the whole ecology of free-to-air TV around the world? How could Vivendi, a French water company, buy a Hollywood giant like Universal Studios and knit it with other large businesses into a converged communications giant? More to the point, if they could do it – and from almost a standing start – why couldn’t we, who have been showing the world how to make proper TV programmes for the best part of 50 years?

The impending implosion of the US behemoth AOL-Time Warner is another source of satisfaction to many. Time Warner was already overlarge before it succumbed to the lure of “new media”. It was still trying to digest Ted Turner’s empire and had never fully realised the synergies to be had from the merger of Time Inc and Warner Bros. The company has lost 90 per cent of its value since AOL’s $112bn (&£71bn) takeover of Time Warner two years ago. Now one of the architects of the deal has resigned, the group is being restructured and there’s talk of a demerger.

The reason all these disasters make us feel better is because there has been no prospect of a UK company competing in this global league for many years – if ever. We still don’t have a single ITV company. That’s partly because policy-makers and MPs have wanted to preserve the regional nature of British broadcasting, but also because, ironically, global advertisers such as Procter & Gamble, Mars and Unilever have always complained that any merger between ITV companies would unfairly restrict competition in the sale of advertising.

So Carlton and Granada never came close to becoming UK Ltd’s global media challenger (although the collapse of ITV Digital suggests management failure may also have played a part). And by the time we have a single ITV company, it will be much too late.

If there were any lingering doubt about our inability to compete globally, the truth was hammered home by the Government’s decision to let US firms buy ITV and Channel 5 without bothering to seek a reciprocal agreement. What would have been the point? That policy – the big surprise in the draft Communications Bill – is being fiercely challenged in behind-the-scenes lobbying and at the joint scrutiny committee chaired by Lord Puttnam. Legal firm Olswang was reported as suggesting it might even be overturned, although Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell still sounded firmly wedded to the plan last week at a breakfast organised by the Westminster Media Forum.

But there’s one UK broadcaster that’s managing to compete globally, albeit not on the scale of Time Warner or Disney. The BBC’s annual report shows that BBC Worldwide bucked the global media recession, increasing total sales by 12 per cent to &£660m. International sales of TV programmes and formats grew by 15 per cent to &£172m, with The Weakest Link sold to 75 countries, while channels such as BBC World, BBC Prime, BBC America and UKTV in Australia increased their distribution by 27 per cent to 460 million homes.

BBC Worldwide has also improved its performance by brand extension, turning its most popular international programmes into best-selling properties. Walking With Beasts, The Blue Planet, The Weakest Link, Top Of The Pops, Tweenies and Teletubbies have been spun off into books, videos, computer games, CD soundtracks, toys and other merchandise.

Take the “Walking With” franchise. Walking With Dinosaurs attracted astonishing audiences in the UK and has been sold to more than 40 countries. In the US it was the most watched documentary ever shown on cable. It has sold more than a million copies on video or DVD and more than 1.5 million books worldwide. The follow-up series Walking With Beasts attracted fewer viewers but has been sold to more countries (47 in last year alone) and the book comes in 20 languages. Walking With Cavemen is coming soon and there are other “Walking With…” specials in the pipeline.

The BBC World Service also had a remarkable year, not least because of September 11 and the subsequent developments in Afghan-istan. Its website has been widely praised, with separate sites in English, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Urdu. More than 40 language services can be accessed anywhere in the world via the Web.

And BBC Films has just received ten Emmy nominations for The Gathering Storm, its co-production with Home Box Office about Winston Churchill. As Channel 4 scales back its FilmFour operation, BBC Films is firing on all cylinders. It may not be much comfort to the BBC’s commercial rivals – particularly those like Artsworld, which blames the launch of BBC4 for its imminent closure – but at least someone is flying the flag.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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