BBC Studios’ Tom Fussell

Bold British creativity underpins the ethos at BBC Studios, but as CEO Tom Fussell explains, the vision for the commercial subsidiary of the leading public-service broadcaster is very much global. Posting its highest-ever revenues in 2021-22 of £1.6 billion ($2 billion), BBC Studios produced 2,400 hours of content globally in its last fiscal year. Altogether, three-quarters of its global content studio revenue for the current year are expected to come from third parties.  Speaking at MIPCOM last October as BBC Studios received the inaugural Studio of Distinction Award, Fussell had a clear message to the international content community: BBC Studios has a new global ambition and it is very much open for business.

The business has been steadily expanding its production capabilities, absorbing the kids’ and family unit previously housed under BBC Children’s and upping its investments in well-regarded U.K. production outfits. BBC Studios fully or majority owns Lookout Point, Sid Gentle Films, Clerkenwell Films, Firebird Pictures, Baby Cow Productions and House Productions—all key players in the scripted space—and the factual producer Voltage TV. It also holds minority investments in Turbine Studios, Boffola Pictures, Expectation Entertainment, Moonage Pictures, Various Artists Limited and Mothership Productions. The company’s distribution team is bringing BBC Studios and third-party productions to broadcasters and platforms across the globe, generating £400 million ($491 million) in revenues in 2021-22 driven by megahits like Doctor Who—which recently scored a significant global deal with Disney+—factual landmarks such as Universe and a thriving format-sales trade across entertainment and scripted. BBC Studios is also looking to drive its direct-to-consumer revenues, including via its joint venture with ITV, BritBox, and through its successful UKTV channels business.

In this wide-ranging interview, Fussell articulates his goals for BBC Studios, which include doubling commercial revenues in the next five years; a singular focus on distinctive, bold storytelling; and fostering and nurturing a new generation of talent across the organization.

***Image***WS: You discussed BBC Studios’ “new global ambition” at MIPCOM. How is that approach dictating your overall strategy today?
FUSSELL: When Tim [Davie] became the BBC’s director-general, he set a strategy, supported by all of us on his executive committee, called “Value for All.” For the first time, one of the four key tenets of the BBC’s overall strategy was to grow commercial income. For us, it starts with the BBC and begins with the content. We’re a fully fledged global content studio across all three genres [kids, scripted and non-scripted]. Kids joined us on April 1, 2022. And people are coming to us, including Kate Ward, who joined us from Vice Studios [as managing director for factual at BBC Studios Productions]; and the teams from Sid Gentle Films and Firebird Pictures, where we have cemented our relationship this year, with them moving to full BBC Studios ownership.

For us, it starts with being a BBC company. Globally, we’re all driven by the mission and the purpose of the BBC. The joy is that we’re seen as an ideal partner to work with. In a world where many people aren’t taking risks anymore—and I understand the economic challenges—we are, making us an attractive place for creatives to come and do their best work.

WS: What other opportunities are you exploring in terms of M&A? What would lead to an investment over a first-look deal?
FUSSELL: We’ll do both and things in the middle as well. The key thing is that we’re open for business on investment. That includes acquiring and investing in the gaming side of the business, linear channels in some parts of the world and production labels in genres that are in our portfolio. The key thing is ensuring our partners share our values; they’re driven by the BBC’s mission and purpose. They want to take creative risks in the ways we want to, and we can work well with them. We now own seven labels and have equity stakes in six more. We’re actively looking at partnerships, but we’re very choosy. There are some deals we’ve passed on, and I wish everybody the best of luck. We know we’re happy with what we have. We’re the most commissioned producer in the U.K. We certainly have a high bar of excellence and are proud of the ones in the fold.

WS: How has the global kids’ community responded to the introduction of your new children’s unit within BBC Studios?
FUSSELL: It’s taken me aback. I spend a lot of time on the West Coast talking to our partners. This is the first time in the BBC’s history that Kids & Family has been able to make shows for the commercial sector. [Our partners are] delighted they can have content driven by the BBC’s mission and purpose to scale. And shows like the megahit Bluey are a great example of how BBC Studios combines commercial and creative teams to deliver success. Our president of brands and licensing, Nicki Sheard, has taken Bluey to new audiences. Bluey has busted through the 2 million followers mark on TikTok and has 30 million likes. It’s the fastest-growing preschool channel on TikTok in history. That gives us new audiences and new ways to find people. There are other shows you may not be as familiar with. We have Supertato, a superhero that is a potato, with a sidekick that’s a broccoli. This is one of the most in-demand shows on the iPlayer and CBeebies.

WS: What are the plans for expanding your U.S. scripted slate, especially now as the streamers seem to be pulling back their spending?
FUSSELL: We’ve acquired six scripted labels now, all based in the U.K. Mark Linsey oversees those [as managing director of scripted]. Mark has relocated to L.A., not because we’re going to shift our production base to L.A., but because I think it’s very important when so much funding comes from L.A. for us to have a senior leader who is plugged into our U.K. scripted producers so close to the customers.

The commercial business in the States will still be run by [CEO of global distribution] Rebecca Glashow’s team, with Janet Brown [as president of distribution for North America and Latin America].

I still see our sweet spot as making content, scripted content, primarily from the U.K. Our shows, often commissioned by the BBC, do not always share the budget of programs on other platforms; they’re not on the scale of a £10 million ($12.3 million), £20 million ($25 million) an ep. They’re sometimes limited-run, made with a U.K. tax credit, and quirky British. And they bring viewers. Happy Valley, made by our production label Lookout Point, is doing some big numbers on the iPlayer. The finale achieved the largest overnight rating—7.5 million [viewers]—for a drama on U.K. television since the Line of Duty season six finale in May 2021. We’re so proud of it because it’s not something anybody else would make. We have Extraordinary on Disney+ [which has the global rights]. The premise is that the lead character is the only person in the world who doesn’t have a superpower. The writer is Emma Moran—Sid Gentle Films found her through a competition they ran. It’s a unique story, and it’s been recommissioned straightaway by Disney+ for a second season. This is a great example of how we’re bringing new stories, often British ones, to a global audience. We also have Rain Dogs, also from Sid Gentle, that’s premiered in the U.S. on HBO and will be coming to the BBC. It has new, interesting voices that we’re getting a lot of traction with. Mark’s working with our drama and comedy production units and labels to bring those characters and voices into the business.

WS: What’s driving your successful formats business? I know you’ve seen a ton of traction on the scripted side, especially in Asia. What’s the latest on the entertainment formats side?
FUSSELL: Many streamers want their local formats for their local audiences on their platforms. Local linear channels want the same. So whether it’s Dancing with the Stars on Disney+ out of L.A., Ghosts season three [for CBS], or shows we’re making in India like the remake of Luther, they’re working. Behind that, we have shows coming out of the scripted side, like Boiling Point. We’re also taking different risks with more traditional entertainment formats. We’re working across the globe with partners, sometimes using British creativity, sometimes using relationships in other parts of the world, to get them away. Formats are still a colossal business for us; whether it is Top Gear, Mastermind, Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing/Dancing with the Stars or scripted, it’s working. They’ve proven themselves, often on a channel like the BBC. From that, you can scale up. It’s got a stamp of Britishness and excellence from the BBC to begin with.

WS: Are you finding broadcasters are slightly more risk-averse these days, with the economy being what it is? On the entertainment side, it feels like nothing has broken since The Masked Singer.
FUSSELL: In entertainment formats across the industry, there hasn’t been a new breakout success for a while now. We have seen content cuts stemming out of the West Coast. In BBC Studios, we’ve still got the strongest pipeline we’ve ever had. A lot of it is because we’re making documentaries and scripted shows years in advance. We already got the orders. But when we talk about high-end premium natural history like Prehistoric Planet for Apple TV+, we’re one of the only producers in the world who can make these. We’re known for it and therefore are very much in demand. We’re doing multimillion-dollar deals with the major streamers worldwide. I hear [concerns about risk-aversion]—we’re not seeing it yet. I don’t want to be overly confident around the market. I just think the fundamentals of the industry are being reset. People are more open now to co-productions, to licensing. We are a studio that adapts and is not using one model, and that’s why partners want to work with us and producers want to work with us.

WS: What’s the approach to franchise management? You have several crown jewels across the catalog that keep coming back, from Dancing with the Starsto Doctor Who. What’s the key to keeping those fresh and engaging, season after season?
FUSSELL: We’ve encouraged the team to take risks and stand by them. We’re managing a portfolio. We say, take those creative risks, keep taking them, work with your partners and be in it for the long term. I’m not driven by short-term success. We have been incredibly successful in the last five years. We’ve doubled in size. When you take a show like Dancing with the Stars in L.A. and move it from ABC to Disney+, that is a risk, but we are so thrilled to be doing it with a partner like Disney+ and that it’s such an audience success. We’re driven by wanting to ensure audiences love our content, and then the commercial will flow. We are also delighted to partner with Disney+ on Doctor Who. The key is to find partners and to keep taking risks.

WS: You’ve set a goal of doubling commercial revenues in five years. What’s the roadmap for getting there? And have you had to course correct at all, given developments in the broader macroeconomy?
FUSSELL: We have had great commercial success in the last five years. I know where we’re heading this year, and I am proud of the company. We have the support of a new BBC commercial board chaired by the well-respected U.K. businessman Damon Buffini. We’re in it for the long term and making long-term investments. We’re investing in UKTV, our linear business. UKTV has doubled its VOD views since pre-Covid from 50 million to over 100 million a year. There will be more investment there to take it even further. We’re investing in the BBC’s website outside of the U.K. It’s the most trusted news brand in North America. We want to build on that. We’ll buy labels. We will do first looks. We are continuing our investment in distribution rights and building for the future. We’ve had good successes in the short term, but we’re also set up for long-term success. The path doesn’t need course correcting because it is the right pace and the right level of risk-taking. That creative risk-taking, driven by the BBC’s mission and purpose, makes us unique. People know what the BBC stands for.

WS: Let’s talk about direct-to-consumer revenues. How are you looking to drive that area?
FUSSELL: In the U.K., we have our UKTV business. It’s an increasingly AVOD model. We’ve launched FAST channels and are looking at more around the world. We have That has a huge number of viewers. We expect the coronation and the U.S. elections to drive even greater audiences. We’re proud of our shareholding in BritBox with ITV and delighted with the success of that business. We’ll carry on looking at more opportunities. Podcasts are an exciting area for us, and we have announced a multi-title deal with Spotify. One of our new, highly acclaimed documentaries, Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World, with Chuck D, sprang out of our first podcast with Spotify. Sometimes D2C models like podcasts or exclusives with Spotify lead to other exciting projects.

WS: As you look at the year ahead, what other priorities will you be focused on?
FUSSELL: Part of our strategy is about empowering people around the organization to be their authentic selves to help them deliver their best work. Inclusivity is something I am passionate about. We’ve been hearing from individuals around the company and what drives them. What doesn’t get written about that much is how proud people are to work for BBC Studios (over 90 percent) and how many people strongly recommend us as a place to work (in the high 80s now). This, to me, is fantastic. We’re the most transparent organization in the U.K.’s media business for voluntarily disclosing protected characteristics. And that culture is very important to me because we’ll get the best storytellers when we reflect the most authentic organization. We spend time as leaders doing that, and that’s one of my key priorities. So relentless focus on the strategy and creating a high-performance culture where people can come here, celebrate themselves and do their best work.

WS: It’s funny; the BBC’s Goodness Gracious Me was the first show I ever watched where it felt like I was seeing myself and my culture represented on-screen. Back in the late ’90s! My friends and I still quote from it all this time later.

FUSSELL: And those clips are working for us on social media. A new generation is finding them. Those sorts of shows work very well in our U.K. VOD business. Those sorts of storytellers, whether it’s Small Axe or I May Destroy You—that’s what we do. We tell stories. I can’t tell you which of them will be commercial successes. What I can tell you is that they’re going to be creatively successful, and they’re going to work in the portfolio. The teams are doing well taking those creative swings and bringing different voices into the organization. We want to represent all the voices of the country. We are trying to make sure that we are bringing the best people in and allowing them to be themselves and be representative at the same time. We say, let’s talk about stories, not statistics. Tell the stories about who you are and what drives you. It’s a lot easier on Zoom when you can talk about things that are very personal as opposed to in front of 500 people. It’s meant that people could be very proud of where they work and share their stories and things they haven’t done before. When you do that, you can be yourself and do your job much better. That’s the thing we’re trying to work on. Everyone is interested in the programs and the numbers, but that’s the key thing for us.