BBC misses out on the Ambridge goldrush

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The Independent Online
AT A glossy party in London last week, The Archers, Radio 4's everyday story of folk in emotional overdrive, celebrated its 45th anniversary. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and Marmaduke Hussey, the BBC chairman, were among guests who mingled with the cast and production team.

The mood was congratulatory and convivial; yet not far below the surface was the sense that the BBC may not have all that much to congratulate itself about. For The Archers, with 4 million devoted listeners, provides an example of how the corporation fails to exploit popular programmes to make the maximum revenue.

The current romantic cliff-hanger in the soap opera is whether the widowed Shula Hebden will marry the difficult Simon Pemberton. Joanna Toye, a former producer on the programme, is awaiting the outcome with particular interest.

Last year she wrote a novel called Shula's Story. One of a number of potentially lucrative Archers "spin-offs", the book ended with Shula and Simon's first kiss. This summer it is to be republished in paperback.

Shula's Story is published by BBC Books, now part of BBC Worldwide, the umbrella organisation for all the corporation's profit-making activities. It sold 13,000 copies in hardback. Though a respectable sale, it is paltry by comparison with the previous year's two Archers books - both of which the BBC had let slip through its fingers.

The Book of the Archers was the idea of Patricia Greene, Charles Collingwood and Heidi Niklaus, all actors in the series. The BBC, which contractually is allowed first refusal on all books based on its programmes, turned down their initial proposal. The book was published instead by Michael Joseph.

The hardback was in the best-seller list for several weeks during 1994, and sold 75,000 copies. The paperback, out in time for Christmas 1995, is also reported to have done well.

"At the time the BBC didn't think there was very much in it," says Nicklaus, who plays Kathy Perks. "I think they were rather taken aback."

They received another shock over Jennifer Aldridge's Archers Cookbook, by Angela Piper. That was rejected by the BBC but has sold 32,000 hardback copies for David and Charles.

None of the five Archers books that the BBC has published in the past decade has done as well as those two. Although BBC Books is a successful publisher, and has improved its performance since the early 1980s when its reputation was poor, some feel it could still do better.

Heather Holden-Brown, senior commissioning editor at BBC Books, said: "It isn't as easy as people think to make money from books based on popular programmes. Everyone thinks that because millions are listening or watching they'll want to buy the book, but that isn't so."

Another promotional area where the BBC may have been over-cautious is in the formation of an Archers' fan club. Five years ago Terry Molloy, the actor who plays Mike Tucker, suggested that the whole cast should take shares in a club that would issue a newsletter about the series, co-ordinate public appearances and stage shows, organise conventions and rallies and market souvenir merchandise.

The BBC agreed to the idea for a small licensing fee. The club, Archers Addicts, has a growing membership of 14,000 and for two years has made aprofit, according to Nicklaus, its managing director. "Over the past 10 years there's been a resurgence of interest in soaps in general. I don't think BBC Worldwide is terrifically keen on running fan clubs, because if things went wrong, they'd get the flak," she says.

BBC Worldwide earned pounds 305m in the year ending March 1995. This is a fraction of the BBC's total revenue of pounds 2.3bn, the bulk of it derived from the licence fee. The corporation has been engaged in heavy cost-cutting to try to increase the money available for making programmes.

In an interview last week, Sir Christopher Bland, who will succeed Mr Hussey as chairman next April, said he was considering whether to ask the Government to increase the annual licence fee by more than the rate of inflation. He might first consider whether the full commercial possibilities of the BBC's assets are being realised.