A few months ago, BBC Studios took on full ownership of Voltage TV, an award-winning unscripted indie, buying out the minority stake that Channel 4 Growth Fund had held since 2015.
“We had not been looking to sell, but when Ralph Lee [CEO of BBC Studios Productions] approached us about a possible acquisition, we decided it was worth exploring further,” says Voltage TV’s founder and CEO, Sanjay Singhal. “The timing was right, as Voltage is going through a period of accelerated growth and with more returnable series than we’ve ever had. We also felt in a world where the market is dominated by global streamers and broadcasters, a partnership with what is the U.K.’s biggest studio and distributor could only be beneficial.”
The BBC’s main commercial arm previously had a long-standing relationship with Voltage TV. Singhal, for one, started at the BBC as a trainee nearly 30 years ago. Co-founder Steve Nam, who serves as managing director, spent more than ten years at the BBC, where he ran the co-production division, subsequently joining Singhal at Dragonfly Film & TV.
“When we set up, BBC Studios (or Worldwide as it was back then) helped us with a first-look distribution and development deal,” says Nam. “My business partner and I had started our careers in television at the BBC, and we knew Ralph well from his time at C4. They have such a great production track record, and there are areas with their landmark factual series that we admired. Likewise, we have a breadth across specialist factual, factual entertainment and premium documentaries that fills some of the distribution needs for BBC Studios.”
Voltage has secured commissions with global broadcasters and streamers alike. This includes the premium documentary series The Fake Sheikh for Prime Video and Tempting Fortune, a six-part reality format for the U.K.’s Channel 4 and Roku in the U.S. Other new titles include the eight-part series Amanda and Alan’s Italian Job for BBC One.
“We aspire to make series that provoke the viewer into seeing the world very differently,” says Singhal. “Inside the Factory explores everyday mass-produced items and shows the extraordinary history, design, engineering and innovation behind them; The British Tribe Next Door attempted to explore the way we live now in 21st-century Britain, but through the eyes of a Himba village in Namibia who could bring a unique perspective to the things we take for granted. We also love ideas of scale that push, provoke and make an impact.”
Founded in 2013, Voltage TV has witnessed a number of shifts in the factual programming business over the last decade. “The middle market for television seems to have disappeared,” says Nam. “It’s either low-cost, high-volume shows (which we don’t make) or massive-scale shows that have a chance of cutting through. I think this was happening before the streamers became such a dominant force, but they’ve definitely accelerated this. In addition, the ‘packaging’ of an idea is of much greater importance—what IP do you have, who’s the director or showrunner, do you have talent attached—all essential requirements that an indie has to bring to the table at an early stage of development in a way that was not true in unscripted a decade ago.”
Singhal says that what’s working best in factual programming these days are big feature documentary box sets with a new perspective or unique access, talent-led documentaries and returning formats that are authentic, have impact and can be scaled.