Where is the bbc in the british tv export boom?

The rest of the world can’t get enough of UK TV show formats, but the BBC seems oddly under-represented in the official export figures.

The UK’s export boom in TV formats – the sale of ideas, rather than finished programmes – shows no sign of abating. The fuse lit some years ago by ITV’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and the BBC’s The Weakest Link has created an appetite for British TV ideas all over the world.

According to Granada International managing director Nadine Nohr, Britain currently holds 45 per cent of the world’s format market, ahead of even the US. She and her team were at the recent Mipcom market in Cannes, along with a record number of other British production companies, drumming up new business.

Among them was Anne Wood of Ragdoll to launch the follow-up to Teletubbies – a 100-part series called In The Night Garden. It has cost as much to make as a small feature film and can only be financed through global sales. Another highly successful children’s TV exporter, Aardman, was launching Shaun the Sheep, a spin-off series from Wallace & Gromit.

UK programme exports rose by 21% last year, up from £524m to £632m. This includes sales of programmes, DVDs, licensing deals and formats. The biggest rise came in sales to western Europe, up by 85%. Format sales grew by 60% to £42m. The US remains the biggest market for UK programmes, accounting for 40% of all revenue.

For the past couple of years, the export figures have been published by PACT, the independent producers’ trade body. They are compiled for it by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). I find this slightly curious. Don’t trade bodies normally compile figures for the Government, rather than the other way round? The PACT website lists 35 of the best-selling UK programmes in 2005 and says three programmes tied for first place – the Orange British Academy Awards (distributed by All 3 Media) and two natural history documentaries from Granada International, Wild Sex and Chimps. Other top sellers included Jamie’s School Dinners, Rock School and The Apprentice.

There’s another curiosity. I hold no brief for BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s commercial arm, but I couldn’t help noticing that all 35 programmes are attributed to independent producers and only four are from the BBC – the sitcoms My Family and As Time Goes By (attributed to DLT Entertainment), Later With Jools Holland (3DD Entertainment TV) and The Apprentice (Fremantle International). Perhaps this is because the figures are published by PACT, which represents independent producers. But as these are the UK’s official TV export figures, shouldn’t they better reflect the whole picture? I am assured by PACT and the DCMS that BBC Worldwide’s export figures are included in the total, but the BBC’s name does not appear anywhere in the release (nor, to be fair, do those of ITV and Channel 4). Yet a glance at BBC Worldwide’s annual review for 2005-06 suggests it warrants at least a passing mention: “BBC Worldwide is Europe’s most successful exporter of television programmes, accounting for around half of the UK’s total television exports with around 40,000 hours of programming sold in the last year.”

It says top-selling BBC programmes last year included: Doctor Who, Hiroshima, Hustle, Krakatoa, Little Britain, My Family and Top Gear. Coming up fast were series such as Planet Earth, Life on Mars, Bleak House and Hotel Babylon. A growing number of these are made for the BBC by independent producers, so there should be no particular tension with PACT.

The explanation may be that none sold as well in 2005 as the 35 programmes in the list. PACT says: “This is not a definitive list, but does give a flavour of popular programmes overseas and shows the diverse range of UK programmes sold overseas. Each has sold to over 70 countries.”

Compiling such figures can be a minefield. There are problems of definition and comparability, just as there are with defining what counts as a “British” film. For example, BBC Worldwide sells programmes to UK stations such as UK Drama as well as overseas ones. It also sells to its own channels, such as BBC America, and has co-production deals with big operators such as Discovery. It may also be that its reporting procedures don’t fit neatly into PACT’s.

But other distributors have similar complications. PACT’s release says that “Donald Trump is now officially the most famous – or infamous – entrepreneur in the land of reality television” because of his exposure in Fremantle International Distribution’s The Apprentice. Yet the Donald Trump shows were made in the US by an American production company – do they really count as UK exports? And doesn’t Sir Alan Sugar, who presents the UK series of The Apprentice, warrant at least a footnote?

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