Newly appointed BBC director general Tim Davie had been seen by many as the leading candidate for the top job in UK broadcasting as far back as January – but will his new role help or hinder the commercial arm he’s leaving behind?
Much has been made of the considerable market savvy shown by Tim Davie while European marketing manager at Pepsi, but it is probably his leadership of BBC Studios (BBCS) over the past seven years that got him over the line and into the BBC’s top job.
Over that period, Davie has attempted to steer the sometimes unwieldy public broadcaster’s commercial arm through a tidal wave of change. Where once it was largely an operation to sell BBC programming to the world, it is now a conduit to global partners and looks likely to play an increasingly important role in keeping the UK public broadcaster alive.
BBCS contributed almost £250m ($320m) to its parent broadcaster last year, yet it remains rather ignored by the UK public, despite its global standing. Few outside of the industry in the UK know of its hugely impressive Showcase event each year, for example, but now, the opportunities look increasingly bountiful.
And as discussion over the BBC’s licence fee model intensifies – which it surely will, regardless of the current warmth felt towards it during the Covid-19 pandemic – the outgoing boss of the broadcaster’s commercial arm is seen by BBC bosses as being best-placed to know the real value of what it produces and how to leverage that global knowledge domestically.
Since taking the top job at what was then BBC Worldwide in 2013, Davie has overseen the launch of production arm BBC Studios, its merger with BBCWW and deals that point to an understanding that the TV business is now unavoidably – and increasingly – global in nature.
BBCS is producing for companies as diverse as Migu in China and Quibi in the US; has struck rich content deals with Discovery for natural history programming; been bullish on linear with its UKTV acquisition; and expanded the roll-out of streamer BritBox into the US and most recently Australia.
Like its rivals, BBCS is by no means simply a distribution company any more and with one of its own in charge of the parent broadcaster, the expectation has to be that a more closely aligned strategy that bolsters both sides of the organisation will emerge.
Indeed, there are already examples of how BBCS’s relationship with its parent is changing. Last month, the broadcaster admitted it was “exploring potential commercial opportunities” around turning its culture-skewing channel BBC Four – which was widely seen to be in the firing line as budgets fall – into a global subscription service. Its editor Cassian Harrison has already signed up for a nine-month attachment at BBCS.
There are synergies on streamer BritBox too, which BBCS operates with ITV Studios outside of the UK, and clearly the arrival of Davie will strengthen the bond between the globally-facing commercial operation and its UK-focused side.
Replacement & reform
As Davie’s exit from BBCS nears, there will also be questions over his own replacement. In August, BBCS brought its international sales and distribution business into a single global group under the remit of long-serving exec Paul Dempsey, who is seen as a leading contender.
The BBC is also likely to have others in mind, given that less than 18 months ago, Davie was in discussions with the Premier League over taking its top job. That role went to Discovery exec Sarah Dinnage, who subsequently u-turned, with Davie then rejecting the position.
BBCS told TBI today that there would be “time to consider the future leadership of BBC Studios in the weeks and months ahead”, pointing to Davie’s 1 September start date.
But for the broadcaster, the watchword seems to be ‘reform’ – mentioned no less than three times in the five paragraphs of quotes sent out today from chairman David Clementi and Davie.
That ‘reform’ has not necessarily been evidenced in its choice of director general, with many observers pointing to the predictability of another man being named as head of the UK’s foremost broadcasting operation. BBC content chief Charlotte Moore was the only woman on the shortlist of four – which also included Amazon’s UK boss Doug Gurr and former Dow Jones chief Will Lewis – and the fact that that quartet were all white points further to the grossly inadequate representation within the UK’s TV industry, regardless of the effect the Covid-19 pandemic might have had on other potential candidates’ decision-making processes.
The BBC has nevertheless made a calculated judgment that Davie is the right man. And that will likely put an even greater spotlight onto a replacement at the top of its commercial operations.