Britain finds an export star at last

Sales of British television programmes to the international market have hit an all-time high. Nick Clark reports

The great and the good of the TV industry are pressing the flesh at a trade show in Cannes this week, with many looking to buy up the next hit show to bring home to their markets.

Mipcom offers producers the chance to showcase new material and meet with buyers from around the world. UK producers will go with high hopes after it emerged the export business was in rude health, with sales up almost a tenth last year.

Sir Andrew Cahn, chief executive of UK Trade & Investment, said: "From Manila to Helsinki to Buenos Aires, TV formats such as Britain's Got Talent, Strictly Come Dancing, Midsummer Murders and Spooks continue to captivate and inspire new audiences – demonstrating the global reach and appeal of the UK TV industry."

The comments came in response to the latest UK TV Exports Survey, released yesterday by independent television, film, animation and interactive industries trade body Pact. It showed that despite the global recession in 2009, the international sales of British TV programmes rose 9 per cent to £1.3bn in 2009. Chris Bonney, managing director of Outright Distribution, said: "2009 was one of the toughest years for the media industry, so to see an increase in exports is testament to the popularity of British shows all around the world."

The most popular UK shows and formats to be sold abroad include Strictly Come Dancing, Come Dine with Me and Spooks. The BBC's commercial arm said its sales and distribution profits in the last financial year rose 4.6 per cent to £64.2m.

Sir Andrew said: "I'm delighted, although I'm not surprised. There has been much talk about the UK's dependence on financial services, but we're also pretty dependent on the creative industries, and TV is a huge part of that."

While much has been made of the so-called golden age of US television, from The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, British drama has also found an audience worldwide including Doctor Who and Life on Mars. Recently, BBC Worldwide sold acclaimed show Sherlock to 18 territories, and has high hopes for Wallander and Luther.

Tim Westcott, analyst at Screen Digest, said the recession may not yet have hit budgets due to the long lead time for international sales. Yet, he added that any such cuts may not be a problem for UK exports: "Normally, original content is cut back, rather than the imported shows that have done well. It could even see more British shows snapped up."

The dominant market for exports remains the US, where sales rose 3 per cent to £485m last year. As well as Dancing with the Stars – based on the Strictly format – Undercover Boss, which originated on Channel 4 proved a hit in America.

Other successes from UK formats include Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and America's Got Talent, as well as Dancing With the Stars and American Idol, based off UK formats.

The greatest export growth last year was seen in Australia and New Zealand for the second year running, growing a third to £170m. Australia's version of MasterChef became the country's most watched non-sport show ever.

Respondents to Pact's survey said comedy, crime and factual programming were among the crucial areas of UK's expertise in TV. "Moreover, the UK's reputation for high production standards increased export opportunities," it said. Mr Westcott said the money spent on originating programmes by the public service broadcasters, was a stronger driver, adding the production values were usually seen as "pretty good".

He also pointed to the competition among domestic independent TV producers, "which has been especially responsible for the rise in formats". The sale of formats rose a quarter to £119m last year, while revenues from producing UK formats abroad more than doubled to £41m. Sir Andrew of the UKTI said the more than 1,500 independent producers made a huge difference. "The companies specialise in all different genres and bring a depth of expertise," he said.

More disappointingly digital sales, a new category in the survey this year, hit £11m, which was not enough to counter the decline in sales of videos and DVDs from £204m in 2008 to £185m last year. Other problems for UK production include limited episode runs and a failure, as yet, to crack emerging markets such as Latin America, Russia and China.

However, Mr Westcott said: "The prospects for the UK are pretty good. It is always challenging to persuade other markets to like and enjoy UK-centric content, but the signs are that the industry is doing well and can continue to grow."

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