Media: We're not always their cup of tea

The BBC is renowned worldwide for quality TV, but it must face the fact that Britishness doesn't always travel well.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Last week in Cannes, Rupert Gavin, the boss of BBC Worldwide, was enjoying himself at the Top of the Pops party. At 41 he may be a little old to be bopping to the latest teen-band, but his attendance was in a good cause. Mr Gavin is charged with making the BBC a truly global success, and this was MIPCOM, the showcase at which TV companies from around the world show off their wares, and hope to sell them.

Top of the Pops is doing OK. A French version and a German variation have already been made using local presenters. Spain is next on the list, and then possibly Italy. And Top of the Pops, according to Mr Gavin, is the way of the future.

If Britain is going to be successful in international markets, he says, it needs to improve its ability to reversion programmes, to customise them to suit particular overseas audiences.

It sounds good. And so does the official BBC line on its programme-sales achievements. "BBC Worldwide is the largest non-US English language programme exporter in the world," says the Corporation, "and continues to be Europe's largest exporter of television programmes, with international sales of over pounds 90m in 1997/98."

Such statistics serve to reinforce the general impression that Britain makes the best television in the world, and is an international success. They help support the view of the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, that our television is world-renowned, and part of the enormous potential of our "creative economy".

The problem is that, despite the success of Top of the Pops, Teletubbies and a few other brands, the UK is, in practice, pretty useless overall in selling programmes abroad. The trade statistics point to the larger truth - that Britishness in television mostly does not travel.

The country's trade deficit in television programmes is around pounds 280m. The last year of surplus was 1989, and then it was only pounds 8m. Looked at another way, America takes about 80 per cent of the world television market, and Britain only about 3 per cent, just ahead of France and Germany. Mr Gavin is deeply aware of the situation. "The international market for television programmes is basically American," he says. "Everyone else is way behind." Look at the top ten programmes in virtually any industrialised country and the story is the same - the schedules are totally dominated by locally-made programmes, with just one or two American imports scattered in amongst them.

Mr Gavin points out that Granada's Cracker programme, with Robbie Coltrane, was a big success domestically, both critically and in terms of viewers, while the American version was by all accounts an inferior product - and yet it was the American Cracker, not the British one, which did very well on international markets.

Hence the success of Teletubbies - even with the limited amount of actual talking in the programmes, they are reversioned for different overseas markets. "All the children's sequences are reshot locally," says Mr Gavin. "If Britain is going to succeed, it needs to be responsive and flexible in that sort of way."

He puts a great deal of emphasis on BBC Worldwide being involved in the early stages of a new project, so that international requirements can be built into the production process, along with the planning needed to have books, videos and other merchandise in the shops at the time the programme is first broadcast, rather than six months later. The massive BBC Walking with Dinosaurs series, a festival of computer wizardry, has been approached in this way. And Mr Gavin talks enthusiastically of having developed "the complete Noddy vehicle" - not a brightly coloured little open-top car, but a totally reversioned Noddy for local markets.

In drama, the BBC has some success with elaborate costume productions and is constantly looking out for "the next Pride and Prejudice". But Mr Gavin acknowledges that foreign audiences tend to favour slightly lighter, more fun dramas. Tom Jones, which did well in Britain but was dwarfed by the critical success of Our Mutual Friend, was the bigger international hit, most likely because it lacked the darker side of Dickens. Mr Gavin has great hopes for Vanity Fair, about to be broadcast in Britain, seeing it as "quite light-hearted, bright and, in a way, modern".

Foreign audiences are keen on sci-fi programmes, and pacy plots with a futuristic or spooky element to them. Hence the international success of the BBC's Bugs, and the fact that one of the first major dramas to be commissioned by Michael Jackson at Channel 4 is Ultraviolet, a tale of vampires in the 21st century. Gothic is out.

The future is in. At the moment the BBC's foreign sales of its programmes are not, as you might think, its major source of commercial revenue. The pounds 90m in sales they brought in last year, were put in the shade by the pounds 257m sales from "publishing" projects; from a Gary Rhodes cookery book to the licensed manufacture of Pingu toys and Teletubbies toasters.

If Mr Gavin is to boost the programme sales side, it is acknowledged that he needs to step up his efforts to be involved with projects from the beginning. But it is here that the contradiction at the heart of the BBC's commercial activities weighs in heavily. If Worldwide influences programmes in order to make them more internationally viable, that can easily contradict the BBC's core responsibility to British licence-payers. For example, Mr Gavin might well point out to BBC programme-makers that, in European television schedules, there is virtually no place for the 3x45-minute documentary series. Other countries like their programmes to run for either half an hour, or an hour, and a minimum of 13 episodes. The Germans and Italians offer 13- and 26-episode packages, while we retain a preference for one-off dramas and shorter series. It might just be that British viewers prefer a short series - if so, Mr Gavin is hamstrung.

It is not surprising, then, that BBC Worldwide is keener to trumpet its expansion of new channels rather than programme sales. Despite making losses of pounds 20m last year, this is the growth area. The Corporation is now reaching more than 120 million homes around the world - from the international 24-hour news channel BBC World, now in 55 million homes, to the fledgling BBC America in 700,000 homes.

At root, though, the prospects of Worldwide's programme division and the channel division are connected. Unless the BBC becomes better at making its programmes more suitable for foreign audiences, it will never achieve the international brand identity needed to take on the Americans. Mr Gavin's challenge is to internationalise more programmes, without jeopardising the BBC's first and overriding duty to keep British audiences happy.

The Hits...

Teletubbies and

Absolutely Fabulous

THE MAIN attraction of Teletubbies - the best example of a British programme that does well overseas - is that it is not culture-specific. Only the insertion of short films about children having fun has a British feel, and these can be replaced by locally made films. Adult television is trickier. The global outbreak of "weatherporn" - programmes about everything from hurricanes to volcanoes - are, like wildlife shows, easily customised for local audiences, often requiring nothing more than a new voice-over.

One of the BBC's biggest successes last year was Land of the Tiger.

Culturally-specific genres, such as comedy, are problematic. While Absolutely Fabulous was a cult hit in the US, an American version of Men Behaving Badly never took off.

...And Misses

Shooting Stars

and EastEnders

THE NEW wave of comedy panel games, such as Have I Got News For You or Shooting Stars, does not work with German subtitles, but there is a flourishing market in selling the formats of these programmes.

British drama is highly regarded in America because the best of it ends up on PBS, the public service channel. But that is a niche market, which is best served by the chocolate-box end of costume drama.

Soaps such as EastEnders are unlikely to be popular on a broad international stage - but their formats can be exportable.

It is not impossible that a BBC executive could one day be dispatched to Peking to make the Mandarin version.