Speaking at MIPCOM, BBC Studios CEO Tim Davie discussed the company’s focus on bold British creativity across all genres, from natural-history epics to premium drama, prime-time entertainment to kids. That commitment was strengthened by the recent merger of BBC Studios and BBC Worldwide, which is already starting to create a wealth of new opportunities, according to David Weiland, executive VP for Asia. Weiland chats with TV Asia about BBC Studios’ content-licensing, format and branded-destination businesses across the region.
TV ASIA: What have been the most significant developments in your Asian business over the last 12 months?
WEILAND: The biggest development as an organization has been the merger [of BBC Studios and BBC Worldwide]. That’s going to have a significant positive impact on our business going forward, particularly in the area of production.
We’ve seen a real development in our scripted-format business. In the last year, we managed to license 12 different formats across mostly North Asian markets and India. In Korea, we’ve licensed five. At MIPCOM we announced Doctor Foster going to JTBC. We’ve also had a lot of success there with Life on Mars on CJ.
In China, our continued relationship with Tencent and CCTV around our natural-history titles is developing. Tencent is co-producing our next landmark, Dynasties. And on the back of that, we’re trying a new online community with Tencent, playing to their strengths as a big digital player. We’ve just launched BBC Earth Tribe, with long-form content, short-form content and real interaction with our on- and off-screen talent in the premium factual space. We just had the executive producer of Dynasties in China doing press and talking to fans in Beijing. We’ve been live streaming from some of our locations for Tencent subscribers. We’re doing some really innovative things in Asia because it is so mobile first, digital first—things you possibly wouldn’t do in more mature markets like Western Europe.
BBC Player has launched into a much wider base. It’s now available to Telekom Malaysia’s broadband and pay-TV subscribers in Malaysia. We’re trying lots of different methods to get our content to consumers in different places.
TV ASIA: What’s driving the expansion of your scripted-format business?
WEILAND: We have had a strategic aim to refocus on that side of the business. That was partly because in North Asia, with regulations in China, entertainment formats were becoming harder. We started in Japan and South Korea and we hired some script-editing and production expertise, so we weren’t just selling based on the original version and a one-page flyer about it. We were almost pre-adapting it and saying, Here’s the original version, this is the storyline, these are the characters, and this is how we think it could work in Korea. It’s not that we were giving them the finished product, but we were able to make that leap so that they could absolutely see how it could be relevant to their audience. [Similar efforts in] China and India followed. And in India, we’ve got our own production unit, so we have that talent within the team.
In South Korea, it also felt like there was a bit of a move away from the classic K-drama formula of boy meets girl. They were looking for slightly edgier content, maybe skewing more toward the crime genre, and there possibly were not quite enough writers who could write that type of content. The ones we’ve licensed—Life on Mars, Orphan Black, Luther, Criminal Justice, Doctor Foster—all have that slight edge. So the market has changed slightly.
TV ASIA: Is your Indian production team creating original ideas for the local market, or is it focusing on adapting existing IP?
WEILAND: It’s always had a twin track. We have production units in a number of markets around the world and the main focus is on producing our own formats. India has been very successful with Dancing with the Stars (Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa) for many years on Colors, and other formats. But when you have a production company, it makes sense for them to also develop original ideas. In India, we’ve done some quite long-running dramas and original entertainment shows. With the introduction of digital in the Indian market, they’re looking more at shorter runs of edgier scripted dramas. Criminal Justice falls into that. And The Office offered the opportunity to try something different from the usual formula of scripted content.
TV ASIA: What are the trends you’re seeing on the entertainment format side?
WEILAND: We just announced we’re doing Stupid Man, Smart Phone in Singapore for Mediacorp. That’s a slight innovation where we are working with Singapore and our India production team. They are also making programs for our own branded services, like Got Science? with a Malaysian stand-up comic named Harith Iskander. It was made for BBC Earth channel in Asia and for BBC Player.
Going back to the merger, we have new heads of the factual entertainment and entertainment divisions at BBC Studios, Suzy Lamb and Hannah Wyatt. They are working on more big Saturday-night shiny-floor entertainment shows, as well as very accessible, strippable, quiz and factual-entertainment shows. So I think we’re going to see more coming out next year.
The one big format disappointment I have had is with Bake Off, which has been a monster hit for us all around the world, but in Asia, the only place we’ve done it is Thailand. There isn’t necessarily such a baking culture here in Asia. We are always trying to look at what resonates and what’s relevant. That’s why the breadth of our catalog is useful.
TV ASIA: How has the finished-program-sales business been?
WEILAND: Content licensing is still our biggest business. We have a lot of different lines of business and market-by-market we look at our best route in. In Southeast Asia, we’re probably more focused on our branded services, in North Asia more on content licensing. We certainly license more to digital players than TV—AVOD, SVOD, any type of on-demand is probably about 70 percent of our content licensing and 30 percent is TV. We still have very big free-to-air relationships, particularly with NHK, KBS, Thai PBS, Mediacorp and to a certain degree TVB. But there is a lot of activity going on in that digital space, led by China. There’s been a lot of growth—Amazon is quite active in Japan and India, there’s HOOQ, iflix, myVideo [in Taiwan]. We’re working with all of them. Factual is probably our lead genre—it’s easy to localize, it travels and it’s where BBC Studios has a bit of an edge. Some of these big shows, like Dynasties, the natural-history landmark with David Attenborough, are four years in making, with multi-million-pound budgets. That needs a degree of commitment. Preschool is a positive story for us. Drama works well, particularly in that digital space. Certainly free-to-air broadcasters are focusing more on local content, and then possibly other Asian content. The slots for international drama on free-to-air TV are diminishing. But that’s where digital has really come in—they have unlimited shelf space, and they’re tapping into potentially a younger audience that wants to explore different types of content from around the world. We’re seeing a real boost in packages of drama.
TV ASIA: What new opportunities is the merger creating for your Asian business?
WEILAND: The BBC in-house production machine is now part of a combined distribution-production company, and it is making content for [third-party broadcasters]. We’re starting to have conversations with commissioners in Asia who are interested in engaging directly with our producers. Some may end up becoming co-productions and some may be direct commissions. We’re having conversations in markets like Japan, China and Korea about what more we could do. There are lots of local producers commissioners can call on, so why do they want to engage with the BBC? It’s in areas where we can offer something different—big-scale documentaries, natural history, science shows—where we have that heritage, that expertise, that global reach. A lot of companies, particularly in China, want to get involved in shows much earlier. I think in the next year that is going to start to be a really interesting development.