Auntie flexes her muscles in television's hard sell

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Television executives from all over the world have been flocking to Brighton this week to snap up the best of the BBC's output and help Auntie supplement her licence fee income.

Programme buyers from 90 broadcasters in 40 countries came, saw and concurred that no other media organisation anywhere on the planet can match the British Broadcasting Corporation in terms of consistent high quality.

This was the 21st anniversary of BBC Showcase, an annual jamboree at the Brighton Centre in which Auntie pitches her best programmes to an admiring multi-lingual audience. It helps

BBC Worldwide, the organisation established to pursue this enterprising strategy, generated pounds 131m from programme distribution last year, bringing pounds 77m in gross value to the BBC. Its aim is to treble this commercial return during the current 10-year charter period.

What started off as an amateurish little affair involving a quick trawl through the archives and a few trestle tables has ballooned into one of the biggest events in the broadcasting calendar.

Auntie is becoming an ever more aggressive exporter as she endeavours to develop the BBC as a global media brand.

Ruby Wax, Sir David Attenborough and Michael Palin have all been brought down to the south coast to sprinkle some stardust on the grey promenade.

Directing BBC Worldwide's international distribution network is a 30- year-old Hispanic-American woman called Fabiola Arredondo. Head-hunted from the German media giant Bertelsmann, she has clearly been in her element over the last four days, using her multi-lingual skills and negotiating nous in order to cut an endless succession of instant deals.

"I see a real opportunity for the BBC to develop a terrific brand which has, up to now, been rather under-exploited internationally," she says, weaving her way through the tightly-packed viewing booths.

The 400 buyers are each assigned their own makeshift booth, kitted out with a portable television and a video recorder. Apart from a few famous props strategically dotted around the place, such as Del Boy Trotter's beaten-up yellow van from Only Fools and Horses and the hideous costumes from Red Dwarf, it has the air of a modern university library.

Most of the buyers only remove their headphones and emerge from behind behind their hardboard partition when they want to borrow another tape, or stretch their legs, pop out for a quick smoke, and slap down a coffee in the adjoining cafe.

"The BBC has been the best for years and we're prepared to pay more for its consistently high standards," enthuses Dieter Kaiser, one of a three- strong delegation from WDR in Cologne, during a lunch break at the Grand Hotel.

The Germans, along with many others, are wild about wildlife programming and simply can't get enough from David Attenborough and his colleagues at the BBC natural history unit in Bristol, which is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Since the collapse of Communism, the East European networks have also become steadily bigger customers. Although their resources are limited, they are assiduously cultivated by Maria Burguera, BBC's senior sales executive for Russia and Eastern Europe, who, like her boss, has a Hispanic background.

Serbia's broadcasting corporation was banned from the BBC Showcase at the height of the Balkan conflict, so its head of acquisitions, Nada Pejovic Hadzic, is happy to be back in Brighton for the fourth time in 10 years. "We cover a smaller transmission territory since the death of Yugoslavia, so we need to buy more from abroad to fill our schedules," she said.

South African networks have also had a strong presence since the death of apartheid ended the Equity-inspired ban on television exports.

Pauline Cunningham, from the pay-TV service M-Net, is snapping up all the classic comedy and drama series that her compatriots were deprived of when they were international pariahs. She has brought the classic comedy series Fawlty Towers, Yes, Minister and To the Manor Born to M-Net's 1 million subscribers.

She finds her annual trip to Brighton "far more civilised" than the other big television markets, which are held in more glamourous locations on the Continent, such as Monte Carlo and Cannes. "We can actually sit back and watch a whole series if we want," she said.