Lorraine Heggessey on Broadcasting
We're selling lots of programmes. But there's far more we should do
Monday 24 April 2006
The dramatic increase in programme sales from the UK into foreign markets is a sign that the British television industry is in good creative health. Export figures released by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport last week showed a rise of 21 per cent, up to £632m - £100m more than last year. This is great news for the industry and, ultimately, for the viewer.
Success breeds success, and I'm convinced that it can go much further than this. American broadcasters relied on the British for half of their top 12 entertainment hits last year, with shows as diverse as American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, Wife Swap and Supernanny. No wonder UK format sales are up 60 per cent. Increasingly good ratings here are seen as proof that a show will be a hit abroad.
The new terms of trade have undoubtedly helped to create the right kind of climate. Producers have woken up to the value of the rights they create. They are more demanding and want to see those rights fully exploited. Distributors have had to smarten up their act. New players have entered the game, providing useful competition for the established broadcaster-owned operators.
The days when a broadcaster could simply swallow up all the rights almost for nothing, and then sit on them, are hopefully a thing of the past. It was a terrible waste of potential and meant that there was not enough money going back into the television market, much of which could have been invested in development and new productions.
We need people in distribution and licensing who are as imaginative and adventurous as those in production. They must understand the international market, have great contacts and be able to push a sale aggressively.
We can learn a lot from the US. The American studios have bundled their programmes for years. For every Desperate Housewives, the broadcasters have had to find airtime for many other desperate programmes, some in the depths of the night or buried on a digital channel. Even when they are selling formats to be produced overseas, the Americans will often insist on selling the original series as part of the deal, as the American-based, British-born producer Mark Burnett did with the Donald Trump version of The Apprentice, for example.
It's not enough simply to sell the tape and the format. We need to think laterally and ambitiously. Even the most surprising series can lead to commercial success.
I remember when we launched Animal Hospital at the BBC, the production team was convinced that BBC Worldwide should launch a range of toys and vet dressing-up kits. We knew our own children had branched out from playing doctors and nurses into vets and pets. We pushed hard and eventually a creative executive took up the challenge. The result was a range of successful spin-offs, from plush toys to little plastic models in cereal packets. Each toy came with a heat-sensitive patch, and the warmth of a child's hand would "heal" the animal as they stroked it. I can hear even the most cynical reader say, "Aah"!
We need to learn to be as innovative as possible in creating successful brands out of hit series. One way of doing this is to have a fully integrated approach from the start. At talkbackThames, the company I run that is part of FremantleMedia, we have our own distribution and licensing divisions, and I have really seen the benefits of listening to our colleagues who understand the international market or the commercial potential of an idea. Increasingly, that will involve online, broadband or mobile exploitation, too.
There's one area where the UK lags behind - comedy and drama. Research by Oliver & Ohlbaum shows that whereas UK comedy and drama exports totalled £183m in 2004, British TV spent £273m on imports. Ricky Gervais has proven that the most idiosyncratic British comedy can translate into American, and there's even a French version of The Office on the way. Let's hope that next year, we've got a better story to tell for scripted programmes as well.
Poaching big names just doesn't work
We've been experiencing one of those periodic phases where there's been a massive game of musical chairs at the top of the television industry. These things are cyclical and it looks like the music has almost stopped, so hopefully there'll be some stability for a while.
Now I'm in the independent sector, I realise just how precarious the production business can be. There's nothing worse than being on the verge of clinching a commission when you suddenly hear your champion is departing. But why is it that some people can happily switch jobs and thrive, whereas other star performers flounder when they change employer?
I've just come back from a course at Harvard where a piece of research shed some light on this. It was carried out in investment banks where it's very easy to directly compare the results of fund managers before and after they change jobs. The findings were that stars rarely performed as well after they moved. The reason for this is that they are usually extremely dependent on the team around them (although being stars, they often fail to recognise this!). Removed from the people they had come to rely on, the stars found it very difficult to replicate the high performance that made them so desirable in the first place. The answer is - don't poach stars, poach high-performing teams. There's a lesson in there for the television industry.
Lorraine Heggessey was controller of BBC1 from 2000-2005, and is now chief executive of talkbackThames
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