TBI Weekly: What BBCS & Vuulr deal says about rights cycles & distribution

Call The Midwife

BBC Studios’ agreement with Vuulr revealed earlier this week is another nod to the rapidly changing content business. TBI speaks to the platform’s CEO Ian McKee about $12m worth of deals, 200,000+ hours of content & US studios’ reevaluation of rights.

Trading rights to TV shows has been a part of the content industry for almost as long as there have been shows to sell, but the business had until recently operated in little-changed fashion for years.

True, distributors of size have been quick to adapt to change and have for some time been far more than straight sales houses – they are financiers, deal-makers, packagers, commissioners, even.

But their underlying business – that of of buying and selling shows – had always been predominantly a face-to-face operation, with execs travelling to markets and catching up with buyers over half-hour meetings and evening drinks.


It is easy to point to the pandemic as the reason why this is changing, but the traditional model was in flux before 2020. Now, momentum seems to be building – underlined by the more than $12m worth of sales that one online marketplace, Vuulr, has facilitated alone.

“That basically means that buyers have found $12m worth of content that they have successfully negotiated to acquire, and on the other side, that sellers have found $12m worth of custom,” says Ian McKee, speaking to TBI from LA, where has been for the past six weeks. But more of that later.

Incremental growth

Vuulr is among a handful of fairly recent start-ups that have looked to provide online solutions to buying and selling content face-to-face, a process that became somewhat trickier when Covid-19 hit.

Fast-forward two years and we are beginning to see just how some of these companies have fared. For Vuulr and McKee, one of the key takeaways has been that much of the business done via his site is on top of what they might have expected to do.

“Typically it is new customers who they wouldn’t have done business with before,” McKee says of those doing the deals. “It’s new incremental revenue that sellers weren’t getting from their normal distribution channels, whether that’s their own sales teams or something else.”

Ian McKee

Vuulr’s model is pretty straightforward: sellers put their content onto the platform for free and are charged when a registered buyer – who pays nothing to use the service – completes a deal.

Momentum seems to be growing. BBC Studios’ recent agreement to put shows ranging from Top Gear and Call The Midwife to Attenborough And The Sea Dragon onto Vuulr have helped to take its offering to in excess of 200,000 hours, a number comparative with any of the biggest distributors.

Cataloguing content

Around half of those hours are owned by the producers of the content, the likes of Gaumont for example, which has listed its hit drug drama Narcos on the platform. While the show debuted on Netflix, the French producer now has a slew of rights available – and the aim is “to monetise those secondary markets”, McKee says.

“The other half is distributors which have acquired rights to sell shows either globally or even down to one territory – getting those guys on board seems to be a relatively easy process because the proposition is, why wouldn’t you?

“You get charged 10% and the feeling is that it’s better to get 90% of something rather than 100% of nothing.”

McKee talks up Vuulr’s ease of use – “it’s so easy to go in and search for a cooking show or whatever you’re looking for” – but that element of discovery also extends to the range of sellers on offer. With shows from tiny indies to the likes of Lego and now BBCS, it can become a point of difference for buyers too, he argues.

“There’s this massive catalogue that has been aggregated globally, so it means when you search, you’re finding content that your competitors – if they’re only talking to traditional distributors – won’t see.”

Data & digital deals

The nature of the business also provides McKee with real-time insights into content trends and who wants what.

Specifics of the deals remain under wraps, but the Vuulr boss says most are completed in 14 days and that digital buyers have been quickest to adopt the service.

Around 80% of active buyers are in this bracket, with the US dominating from a geographical point of view. India and Singapore are home to around a third of buyers collectively, followed by acquisition execs from the UK, something of a turnaround after a slower start.

The nature of the platform means adapting to emerging trends is also important – so Vuulr provides myriad windows to sell, a smorgasbord of acronyms that range from FTA and pay TV, to AVOD and FAST, plus EST and TVOD.

Attenborough And The Sea Dragon

“On the ad supported side, you can negotiate – so it can be a flat fee, or you can have a deal which is based on an MG plus a performance element, or one that is a rev share on advertising revenues,” he says.

“Or in some cases, especially for more start-up minded business or for the very established – and it’s normally those extremes – you can go for performance only. Some sellers are willing to take that and some won’t.”

Studio segue

There are also signs that some of the biggest rights owners in the business – the US studios – might be shifting from what were once seen as a ‘retain everything’ approach to their enormous catalogues.

Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) CEO David Zaslav alluded to this in April, when he said the company would reevaluate its distribution strategy and consider third-party programme sales. It’s little surprise, given the enormity of the recently merged company’s library.

Such opportunities could be huge for online rights players and McKee has been in LA for the past six weeks exploring just that.

“There are new things at play with the US studios, he says. “When they were making those decisions [around rights retention] it seemed they were general directional statements. Now, what we are seeing is that people have looked at it for a while.

“What they’re saying is that, actually, we have a bunch of content that we can’t and don’t want to put on our streamers, because it doesn’t fit for whatever reason.

“That initial broad brush statement of not wanting anything to go anywhere, which is how people determined it, is becoming more nuanced. There are conversations,” McKee says, and clearly he intends to be at the forefront of them as distribution strategies enter their next phase of evolution.

Tags: Vuulr

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