Sales of British television programmes to China have soared by 90 per cent after Beijing became hooked on Downton Abbey's depiction of the English class structure.
The latest annual Television Exports Survey shows that sales to international markets grew to £1.22bn during 2012.
Whilst the US remains the UK’s most lucrative market, with sales up 11 per cent, the survey by the producers’ association, Pact, found that revenues from sales to China have almost doubled to £12m.
China is currently importing a British cultural revolution, led by Downton Abbey, which plays to 160 million viewers. An aspirational Chinese audience has become fascinated with the programme’s depiction of British manners in the Edwardian era.
A young, educated Shanghai crowd reportedly “went berserk” at a British Council event to encourage cultural links when they were shown an image of Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham.
BBC dramas such as Sherlock are streamed over the internet by millions of Chinese viewers every month. This result is a cultural, “soft power” benefit for British diplomacy equal to the Armed Forces, according to Tony Hall, the BBC Director General.
Meanwhile, Chinese businesses believe they have much to learn from the “back-to-the-floor” series Undercover Boss. A local version of the Channel 4 series will be produced after its UK producers, All3Media, struck a deal with Dragon TV, part of the Shanghai Media Group.
Florian Fettweis, consulting director at CMM-I, a media consultancy which brokered the deal, said the Chinese Undercover Boss had the potential to “open up a new formats era in China”.
Across south-east Asia, UK television sales are up 26 per cent and the market in India, the latest country to sign up for a local version of Come Dine With Me, has grown by 42 per cent.
The market in Europe is growing too. Whilst British viewers are in thrall to Danish dramas, DR – the Danish channel behind The Killing – has bought Hinterland, a new Welsh/English language “noir” detective series produced by Welsh broadcaster S4C.
But while China is now the fastest-growing source of international business for producers and distributors, the figures are still dwarfed by American buyers – who spent £475m on UK content in 2012.
Downton Abbey again leads the way, with PBS, the cable network which screens the show, reporting that the final episode of the third series was watched by 8.2 million viewers.
Mr Selfridge, another ITV period drama, starring Jeremy Piven, is following in Downton’s wake. At the Mipcom international market in Cannes, ITV Studios confirmed new deals to screen the show in Spain and Central and Eastern Europe, taking its sales to more than 150 countries worldwide.
The total UK programme sales of £1.22bn, up 4 per cent from last year’s £1.18bn, includes a 51 per cent increase in digital sales.
The popularity of UK television has also seen global co-productions rise by 60 per cent with British producers cutting deals with international broadcasters to produce drama, factual and children’s programming.
The BBC series Parade’s End, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is typical of the complex deals required to produce high-end drama. It was produced by the UK company Mammoth Screen in association with HBO Miniseries, BBC Worldwide, Trademark Films and Lookout Point, then co-produced with BNP Paribas Fortis Film Fund and Anchorage Entertainment, and filmed with the support of the Belgian federal government’s Tax Shelter scheme.
Pact’s figures show that the growth in international sales of UK television programmes has almost quadrupled since 2004. John McVay, chief executive of Pact, said: “The dramatic increase in sales to China is surely a sign of major developments to come. TV producers in the UK are innovative – they have established the sector among the most successful and influential of the UK’s creative industries.”
Meanwhile, Paul Dempsey, from BBC Worldwide, said: “In Asia, we are seeing strong demand for UK content in countries where we simply haven’t experienced it before.”
Hit parade: The shows going global
First aired in 1997 and sold internationally to 225 territories, it is German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s favourite programme and the most popular series in Denmark, where a joint UK/Danish episode is in production.
The series is a hit in Sweden, Russia, South Korea, the Middle East and other places “where viewers wouldn’t know a dowager from a dogsbody,” in the words of the New York Times.
The epic wartime period drama was bought by French broadcaster ARTE before screening and licensed to 17 central and Eastern European countries including Slovenia, Latvia and Estonia in “package deals”.
Come Dine With Me
The most successful global format for ITV Studios, which has sold local versions of the dinner party show to 36 territories with India latest to succumb. Serbia asked ITV to produce 155 episodes.
The Channel 4 show is broadcast in more than 200 territories but the show has also been licensed as a “local format” to 20 countries including the US, Canada, Denmark and France.
David Tennant will adopt a US accent when he reprises his detective role in the Fox remake of the hit ITV murder investigation drama.