This year the government will conduct its review of the BBC Charter, and if the Green Paper published last year is any guide, there is plenty of appetite for radical reform of the public broadcaster, including deep cuts and changes to its funding model, a narrowing of its scope and programming, and the possible privatisation of BBC Worldwide.
This latter is of particular concern as it is BBC Worldwide, the publicly owned broadcaster’s commercial arm, which has been one of its great success stories, bringing in more than £226m in revenue in 2014, mainly from selling successful programmes. Prominent among those are programme formats which are developed by the BBC and sold on to broadcasters around the world – household names such as Bake Off and Top Gear.
Few trends have had as much impact on television as formats – following a quiet first half century, the format revolution that began in the late 1990s suddenly transformed a small business that was lying at the fringes of the TV industry into a giant global market.
Today, hundreds of programmes are adapted across the world at any one time, from mundane game shows to blockbuster talent competitions, from factual entertainment to high-end drama. In the process, the business has become a fully fledged trading system underpinned by a global value chain that links hundreds of interdependent media firms across borders.
The BBC led the way in the export of formats in the UK. Early in its television history, the public broadcaster signed – albeit reluctantly – the world’s first format contract in June 1951 for CBS’s What’s My Line. Ahead of most broadcasters, the BBC realised that formats were a way of exploiting its expansive intellectual property and created the position of format licensing in February 1994, two months before launching BBC Worldwide. Ask The Family, Confessions and Noel’s House Party were some of the first formats the BBC pushed for export (with limited success). But it was in the 1990s, with two game shows (The Generation Game and Pets Win Prizes) that the BBC started to taste real success.
Two decades on, BBC Worldwide sells and produces an impressive slate of formats around the world. Bake Off (a Love Productions show that is distributed by BBC Worldwide) has translated into 19 adaptations, while local versions of Top Gear are popular with audiences from China to Russia and the United States, among other territories.
Coast has been produced in Australia and New Zealand, while Dancing with the Stars (Strictly Come Dancing in the UK) remains one of the world’s most popular reality programmes. The talent competition has been adapted more than 50 times and continues to be recommissioned in numerous territories. As a result, it is estimated that more than half a billion people watch local versions of “Strictly” every year.
The BBC, like many British media companies, continues to perform strongly in the trade: the UK is the world’s second biggest exporter of TV programmes – its broadcasting ecology is so designed that competition encourages innovation and does not prohibit risk-taking. UK broadcasters’ commissioning practices, while not perfect, are more sophisticated than in most other markets – UK broadcasters are keen to be the place where producers want to bring their best projects and commissioning processes have improved to become more efficient and transparent.
Independent producers also benefit from terms of trade that give them more control over their intellectual property and encourage them to exploit it on the world market. The UK still exports more formats than any other country but the proportion of UK formats in the world television market has begun to decline.
While global competition is undoubtedly heating up, threats are building up at home. In this context, the re-scaling and re-scoping of the BBC bears particular significance. Cuts to the BBC would have a negative impact on the ecology of the broadcasting system by making it less diverse. The public broadcaster has also acted as a training ground for countless format creators and TV executives, so that nursery for talent would also be endangered.
Above all, it would have less money to spend on programming. The BBC splashed £474m on external commissions in 2014, down from £507m in 2012. Were this trend to continue, it would lessen the ability of the UK independent TV production sector to create innovative formats that can shine internationally.
Three decades ago the Peacock report shifted thinking about television, approaching it as an industry (rather than purely a public service). Today, a similar shift is necessary as policy makers need to be aware of the industry’s global scope. British media firms need sound local policy to thrive on the world market. The BBC may be a distinguished broadcaster but it is also part of a TV content value chain and weakening it weakens all the suppliers up the chain.
The global interdependence of contemporary industrial networks must be at the forefront of broadcasting policy, for the BBC – and for British television as a whole.