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BBC Worldwide channels energies into Brit, Earth and First

Mud-Sweat-and-Gears-2With the creation of the BBC Brit, Earth and First brands, BBC Wordwide is aiming to cement a place in the line-ups of pay TV platforms around the world. Key Worldwide executives tell Stewart Clarke how they will execute the roll out, and about their commissioning and acquisition needs

The launch of three new international channel brands would ordinarily be a boon to distributors and, over time as the nets move to original programming, producers.

When the three brands are from BBC Worldwide, a distributor with a 50,000-hour catalogue, content owners might be tempted to curb their enthusiasm. However, while some landmark in-house titles will be  cornerstones of the BBC Brit, BBC Earth and BBC First schedules, the commercial arm of the UK public broadcaster is also reaching out to producers and sellers of finished programming.

BBCWW is already in original programming mode for the new channels, says chief content officer, Helen Jackson. “We want to do more commissioning around Brit and Earth and we’re looking for content that will help define those channels,” she says.

Before looking at the channels’ specific needs (see below), content companies should be mindful of Worldwide’s mission with its new trio of ‘global genre brands’.

Since late last year, Jon Farrar has been working across the new channels as senior VP, global programming and acquisitions. Before taking that newly created post he played a key role in shaping the core channel propositions. “We asked ourselves, ‘Where are we world class?’, and there were three obvious places,” he says. “Top Gear and male-skewed fact-ent, which has evolved into Brit. Then there has been a huge renaissance in British drama – it always had a unique quality, but it is now at a different level in terms of investment – and that is on BBC First. And we are excited about our natural history programming and tentpoles and wanted to bring them to screen, so there is BBC Earth.”

Brit and Earth’s debuts were in Poland in February. Speaking at a press event ahead of the Brit launch, BBCWW CEO Tim Davie said there was a niche for the channel. “There is a gap in the market for a male-skewing fact-ent destination,” he said. “BBC Brit will capture the maverick spirit of our premium factual entertainment programmes.”

LIFE-STORY_00_01_ICONIC_43MBLaunch titles on Brit included Karl Pilkington show Moaning of Life and Duck Quacks Don’t Echo. Earth’s launch schedule included David Attenborough series Life Story (pictured above), Brian Cox’s Human Universe and Steve Backshall show Deadly Pole to Pole.

“The channels are on all of the key Polish platforms except [cable operator] Multimedia,” says Grant Welland, who oversees Poland as Worldwide’s executive VP for CEE, the Middle East and Africa (CEMA). “We simulcast Top Gear and it won a 5% share in the male 16-44 demo, and with Earth we beat Discovery Science in a couple of slots.” Local commissions are an ambition, he adds.

The next wave of launches will be in the Nordics, starting this month. That will see Brit and Earth roll out as linear channels in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland, replacing the existing BBC Entertainment and BBC Knowledge channels and sitting alongside the BBC Lifestyle and BBC HD channels.

Drama service First is currently only on Foxtel in Australia and, given the premium nature of the scripted content, is likely to roll out internationally at a slower pace than its sister channels.

Ultimately, Farrar says, there will be regional Brit and Earth channel feeds in Africa, Asia and Latin America. “The brands will be based on global templates, but will become local and appeal to local audiences. There will be Life Story on Earth and Top Gear on Brit, but for the brand identities to grow we will need to look at the nuances of the local markets.”

Accordingly, commissioned programming is in the works. Earth gets a strong pipeline of content from the BBC’s vaunted Natural History Unit, meaning its high-end wildlife and natural history requirements are largely covered. That leaves room for fact-ent and human interest stories, such as those looking at people living in extreme conditions, which is one area the in-house commissioning teams want to explore.

Realistically, because of the NHU content, Earth will be a channel fuelled by in-house BBC fare. Brit is a male-skewed fact-ent channel and will be more of a ‘mixed economy’, the programming teams say. “We can’t sit and wait for the BBC to make the shows that we need, [so] we need to take some control of what goes into the schedule,” Farrar notes.

With Brit, however, there is a large Top Gear-shaped elephant in the room. Jeremy Clarkson’s ‘fracas’ with one of the crew led to episodes from season twenty two of the motoring show being shelved, a full internal BBC investigation and, ultimately, the star presenter not having his (expiring) contract renewed. That has thrown, as TBI goes to press, the future of the show into doubt.

In addition to providing BBC Two in the UK with a headache, this presents Worldwide with a problem. After the incident, it had to provide alternative programming to a slew of international Top Gear broadcasters.

In terms of channels, it is a major issue as, in many senses, BBC Brit is an international Top Gear channel.

Its first original commission, motoring show Mud, Sweat & Gears (top) was a Top Gear retention piece, designed to keep fans of Clarkson et al tuning in for another hour. In the series, British car journalists Tom ‘Wookie’ Ford and Jonny Smith head up two teams competing over 24 hours to reconstruct and modify cars and other vehicles.

Top Gear was also not only lined up as an exclusive centerpiece series on Brit, but also seen as setting the tone for the rest of the channel. All of the BBC executives spoke to TBI ahead of the Clarkson crisis, but the importance of his show to the Brit channel was clear. “Brit is male-skewed factual entertainment with Top Gear at the centre; the rest of the schedule will be infused with the spirit that [Top Gear] has,” Farrar said. “It will have shows across the full spread of male interests and in some markets there will be comedy and entertainment programming.”

BBC Earth, meanwhile, is, about smart thinking. “It has to be relevant to our times; think New York times non-fiction top-ten and making clever cool,” Farrar says. “Within specialist factual there is also a trend for looking at how we can live better lives, become healthier, happier versions of ourselves, and we will absolutely focus on that.”

BBC First is Worldwide’s premium drama offering and launched in Australia last August.  Illustrating some of the windowing issues channel launches can create, the Foxtel roll-out meant that a first-look deal with the ABC was reworked to a second-look agreement, and that the Australian pubcaster now gets BBC content a year after it has been on the pay TV First service.

honourable-womanFirst’s launch slate included The Musketeers, Peaky BlindersThe Honourable Woman (left) and the second season of The Fall, all of which went out on BBC channels in the UK, but which come from a variety of distributors.

“We have three areas of particular interest with First,” Farrar says. “One is ‘addictive drama’ – serialised binge-viewing shows with a sense of moral ambiguity and driven by surprise.” These kind of high-end scripted offerings also help pay TV players fight off competition from Netflix and its OTT brethren, helping the channel to get traction with operators. First is also hungry for crime content, often with a skew to older females, who are big drama watchers.

“We also want the opposite of those serialised standalone shows, with drama that has moral certainty, where good wins over evil and there is a sense of familiarity, like Doctor Who,” Farrar says.

He adds: “We will acquire at MIP and MIPCOM and the important markets, but we want to have a rolling dialogue with third-party distributors and strengthen our relationships with them.”