TBI Weekly: Windowing battle brews for the BBC  

Senior producers and BBC Studios execs have spoken out about the public broadcaster’s plans to extend the 30-day iPlayer window into a full year, as BBC Two lags six months behind Amazon’s premiere date for big-budget co-production Good Omens.

The future of the BBC’s catch-up service – where hit show Bodyguard racked up around 10.8m views across five months – has been in the spotlight in recent months with the corporation launching a public consultation on plans to “reinvent” the service, including making content available for at least 12 months after it premieres, as well as extending the availability of box-sets.

While some execs have encouraged a window expansion, labelling the current monthly window as “anachronistic”, producers such as Alex Jones, joint-MD of Hooten & The Lady and Sanditon producer Red Planet Pictures, says the window extension “needs further discussion”.

“Rights have value – that’s how we run our business,” says Jones, who sits on the council of UK trade body Pact, which has urged caution around the BBC’s plans.

The trade group stated in January that the corporation needs to provide a thorough strategic analysis of the expansion, and that if it is to buy the rights to offer shows for longer, it needs to reimburse any unrealised commercial deals.

Jones added: “Especially as an independent producer, there aren’t many of us around who are wholly independent, so I’m always protective of our rights and revenue streams.”

Phil Clarke, former Channel 4 comedy commissioner and co-founder of Dead Pixels producer Various Artists, suggested that the windowing debate – which reaches beyond the UK – speaks to a wider “cultural issue” around British programming ending up on SVOD platforms such as Netflix and Amazon following short domestic windows.

“This is about keeping British broadcasting and programme-making quintessentially British. It is a reflection of the culture in this country,” he tells TBI.

“What does the [SVOD boom] mean for television, culturally, long term? You just can’t take it for granted, even though it’s exciting for producers in the short term.”

With the consultation now ended as of last week (15 February), TBI understands that further negotiations between the broadcaster and production community will take place to get more clarity around what a 12-month window will entail commercially.

The expansion, however, largely has the support of BBC Studios execs. While director of content Ralph Lee said the iPlayer was a “key strategic player” that needed to grow as part of the evolving UK landscape, scripted portfolio director Liam Keelan remarked that he “completely understands” the public broadcaster’s rationale.

“It’s really important that if the BBC is investing in homegrown drama and writing talent on and off-screen, that they want attribution back for the BBC.

“The 30-day window feels a little bit anachronistic. It needs to be longer, and there needs to be more solid attribution back to the BBC for having grown that output. And then it’s incumbent upon us [at BBC Studios Distribution] to make that deal work.”

McMafia and Les Miserables are two recent examples of shows where BBC Studios Distribution has been able to achieve longer windows domestically, while still selling into other territories across the period.

“It does affect overall financing obviously, but it’s achievable,” says Keelan, adding that it ultimately falls on the corporation to “pay a good license fee” for the show.

Good Omens – a sign of the times?

At the other end of the spectrum is the example of Amazon/BBC Two co-production Good Omens, which is produced by the comedy arm of BBC Studios alongside Narrativia and The Blank Corporation, in association with BBC Studios Distribution.

Amazon will launch the David Tennant and Michael Sheen-fronted drama in 200 territories, including the UK, on 31 May, with a UK release on the BBC following “a minimum” of six months later, according to BBC Studios head of comedy Chris Sussman.

“Amazon is putting in the lion’s share of the money so they get [that right],” Sussman tells TBI, adding that the team is “not concerned”.

“When the show launches on Amazon, they’re going to let everyone know about it and put a lot of money into telling people about it.”

Director Douglas Mackinnon, whose credits include Line of Duty 2 and Knightfall, added that the release strategy is in keeping with increasingly global-facing British exports.

“It used to be that the BBC made something, it was shown on the BBC and then it might get sold on to a few other countries. But this is frontier television, and it’s to do with the BBC engaging with the world.

“I don’t think people will feel shortchanged when they see it on the BBC. In a way, it’s kind of a bonus: the BBC license fee payer is going to get a huge show for a very small amount of money. They are getting a great deal out of it.”

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