14 Oct 2014 11:13am

On the box

The British television industry has transformed itself into an exporting powerhouse. What is it, asks Xenia Taliotis,that makes our telly so addictive to overseas audiences?

The Latvians are glued to Call The Midwife, the New Zealanders adore Mrs Brown’s Boys, the Finnish like Heartbeat, and the whole world loves Sherlock, Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, Top Gear and Midsomer Murders. Sales of British television programmes to other nations topped £122bn in 2013 according to the Office for National Statistics. Even the recession, which hit other countries at least as hard as it hit Britain, and which sent other industries into a tailspin, didn’t slow demand for shows: exports rose by at least 9% per year during the downturn.

Dawn McCarthy-Simpson, director of international development at Pact, the trade association for Britain’s independent television, film and media production companies, says this is a trend that’s going to continue. “Britain is at the fore of the industry with a worldwide reputation for innovation, creativity and excellence. Business is strong across all platforms and in all respects, from exporting finished programmes and formats to digital sales and co-productions.

“We’re seeing increased demand for drama, documentary and our game shows. What sells is the quality, the high production values and the expertise. We’re seeing enormous interest from countries where broadcasting is less well developed. Our executive producers are doing a lot of mentoring in Brazil and China, countries that have either bought licences to make our programmes locally and who want format bibles, or who need guidance to create their own content.”

Between 2011 and 2012, says McCarthy-Simpson, programme sales to China rose by more than 90% to £12m; to Indonesia by 81%; to India by 42%; and to the US – British TV’s most lucrative market – by 11% to £475m. Digital sales also grew by 51% globally, as did co-productions, up by 60% – all of which makes the audiovisual sector one of Britain’s great economic and cultural success stories.

It is astonishing, given its size, that Britain is the world’s second-largest exporter of finished programmes (after the US), and the world leader when it comes to exporting formats. Its reach is so expansive that were we to take a trip across the globe we’d find programmes projecting a unique type of “Englishness” wherever we fetched up. We’d be able to watch Sherlock, Midsomer Murders, Downton Abbey and Luther in more than 200 territories; Broadchurch, Lewis and Top of the Lake in more than 100; and even Coronation Street in 40 (including Somalia, Morocco, Estonia and Taiwan).

We’d also be able to enjoy a Chinese James May tearing through the streets in a localised version of Top Gear, an Indian Bruce Forsyth tripping his way through a Bollywood-style Strictly, a French Mary Berry complaining about soggy dessous in Le Meilleur Patissier and a Dutch Martin Clunes in Dokter Tinus.

Why are people who don’t know a “dowager from a dogsbody” as New York Times critic Jeremy Egner wryly put it, drawn to the aristocrats of Downton Abbey, or the laddy curmudgeons of Top Gear? What appeals to international viewers?

“It is precisely their Englishness that is so engaging,” says Hélène Goujet, a buyer for France Télévisions who took Sherlock to France. “They show us a vignette of what we like to imagine life in England is like. Soft-crime serials, like Inspecteur Barnaby [Midsomer Murders], which we call ‘garden crimes’, do well because of their setting: French viewers enjoy looking at beautiful English villages.”

Scenery and quirkiness aside, what French viewers most appreciate is the quality of the writing and the acting. “The British excel at drama,” says Goujet, “and over the past 10 years the writing seems to have evolved so that it is more relevant to international audiences. Broadchurch and The Accused, both of which deal with socially pertinent issues, are two very good examples. We have bought the licenses to remake them both in French; with Broadchurch we screened the English version first, but with The Accused we went straight to the French adaptation.”

It’s no coincidence that Goujet noticed a shift in gear about 10 years ago, with production companies coming up with storylines that could more easily be sold overseas: in 2003 the Communications Act transferred copyright and intellectual property rights from the broadcasters to the individual producers, and in so doing incentivised them to think more commercially.

“Prior to 2003, content producers were a small cottage industry who worked on a ‘work for hire’ basis,” says McCarthy-Simpson, “but the Act changed all that. That one piece of legislation gave the industry the most enormous boost imaginable – after it was passed, exports of UK television content from independent producers doubled. Owning their own copyright proved a massive incentive – suddenly people started thinking in a much more commercial and far-reaching way.

“Exports and franchising are only the beginning – they’re the most simple ways to market a brand; if you look at the success of something like Doctor Who or Top Gear, or even Kirstie Allsopp’s programmes, you’ll get an idea of what’s possible. There are so many opportunities – merchandising, book and film rights, digital, visitor attractions. It’s the ancillary activity, the licensing extensions and the like, that really bring in the money.”

Joyce Yeung, executive vice president, global content sales at BBC Worldwide, agrees that as a brand matures different avenues open up: “We have a very extensive network of international partners, and through our collaborations with other media companies and licensees we’ve been able to take our content to entirely different levels.

“We recently opened CBeebies Land at the Alton Towers resort in Staffordshire, and last year BBC Earth worked with Sega in Japan to open Orbi, a multi-sensory natural history experience. Visitors get the chance to step in the shoes of the BBC’s great natural history filmmakers, to follow them into the deepest oceans, the highest mountains. We plan to open more Orbi attractions in the future.”

High-tech visitor attractions notwithstanding, BBC Worldwide remains the largest distributor of TV programmes outside the major US studios. The four-day BBC Worldwide Showcase, held in Liverpool every February, is the biggest TV sales event in the world hosted by a single distributor, and this year attracted 725 buyers. “It is really our launch-pad, our main opportunity to super-serve our global buyers,” says Yeung. “Last year BBC Worldwide sold 120,000 hours of TV globally, and our figures for this year are already very strong.”

What’s interesting says Yeung, is how the internet and digital services have changed viewing habits. “People are now able to binge view, to watch two or three episodes of, say, Orphan Black – a recent success for us – in one go. Before, viewers preferred episodic storylines, programmes that wrapped up a different narrative each week. Now though, digital services have increased the appetite for serials because people can download or stream whenever it suits them. There is no longer that sense of losing interest in a programme because you’re not around to watch it each week.”

The internet is also a powerful driver. “Audiences are much more aware of what’s going on,” says Goujet. “Once social media goes mad about a programme, like it did about Homeland, Breaking Bad, Sherlock and Doctor Who, then we are under pressure to provide it quickly. We are just three months behind with Sherlock, and were one of the 94 countries that screened the simulcast of the 50th anniversary Doctor Who last November.”

As well as giving a direct boost to the economy, exporting television brings other soft power benefits to Britain. “Our programmes are watched by hundreds of millions of people throughout the world,” says McCarthy-Simpson, “and each time they tune in to Downton, Sherlock or Broadchurch, they see a little bit of England that imprints itself on their minds. Culturally, our shows are having a massive influence on other nations. There’s no doubt about it.”

World class television: The British exports shown in 200+ territories

Doctor Who: with a visitor centre and a range of merchandise that includes everything from action figures to a silver Dalek dressing gown, Dr Who (top) is BBC Worldwide’s biggest-selling TV show.

Downton Abbey: with global viewing figures of 120 million, Downton has had the last laugh over detractors such as Simon Schama, who described it as “a servile soap opera”. Unusually for a drama, it has cashed in on the $150bn per year worldwide merchandising business with a range of Downton Abbey jewellery, wine and homewares.

…Got Talent: became the world’s most successful reality TV format, breaking the Guinness World Record for the highest number of adaptations.

Midsomer Murders: reputedly the most-sold British TV show ever, Midsomer Murders has been offloaded to more than 225 territories, including Japan, Serbia and the Philippines.

Mr Bean: Rowan Atkinson’s silent creation (above) even made his way into the psychology books when Dr Willibald Ruch tested the effect of laughter on people’s pain tolerance.

Top Gear: holds the Guinness World Record for the most-watched factual programme, with audiences in Ghana, Moldova, Spain and Guatemala. Several countries make their own local versions including Australia, South Korea and, most recently, China.

Xenia Taliotis


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