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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: The taxpayer as a media investor

The benefits of having a public service broadcaster that invests in factual and entertainment programming are evident in the strength of the UK's creative economy

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar 

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar

Alastair Fothergill's The Hunt looks at the relationship between the predator and his prey. The seven-part TV series, which took two and a half years in the making, is funded by BBC Worldwide.

Shark, a co-production between BBC's Natural History Unit and Discovery, took over two years, 4K cameras and the latest filming technology to capture how sharks court each other, give birth or clean their teeth.

The Hunt and Shark, slated for release later this year, were on display at the BBC Worldwide Showcase in Liverpool last week. They are part of 2,800 hours of natural history, drama and factual content, acquired or produced by BBC Worldwide for the coming year. The £1-billion commercial arm of the BBC, is the largest distributor of television programming outside of the US studios and Showcase, now in its 39th year, is its own marketplace. Many of the shows on display are picked up by television channels across the world or monetised through BBC's own channels. For instance, Wolf Hall, a new drama based on Hilary Mantel's book was picked up by ARTE, a European broadcaster. It is one of the 750-odd buyers who sit for hours on end over four days, watching the content on offer.

Both The Hunt and Shark underline something that now seems like an inevitable economic truth in the media and entertainment business - that just like news, entertainment and factual programming, too, need 'patronage' or 'not focussed on the quarterlies' kind of investment, ideally from a player funded by the taxpayer. Such an investor is willing to hang in there as producers put together a team that includes scientists working on animal behaviour or waits for months to get the rights shots of sharks.

BBC Worldwide is among a handful of companies around the world, that has the luxury to do that. Its job is to support the BBC public service mission and maximise profits on its behalf. Its primary capital comes from the £145.50-annual licence fee, amounting to £3.7 billion, that British TV owners pay. While this money is largely used for BBC News, natural history, too, is funded partially from it. The remaining is funded through co-productions or advance sale of rights. "The licence fee is like venture capital money that funds the creative economy of the UK," reckons Helen Jackson, chief content officer, BBC Worldwide.

The BBC's £1-billion spend on performance groups, artistes, writers, acquisitions et al is a significant part of the developmental money that goes into building a creative ecosystem that has made the UK the largest exporter of television show formats (Britain's Got Talent or Dancing with the Stars) and a global force in drama and natural history programming. Two highly developed media markets, the US and Western Europe, are among BBC Worldwide's biggest ones.

Does the patronage argument work for entertainment as well? Sherlock takes more than 18 months for a season that has just three episodes each about 90 minutes. Most commercial firms would be, rightly, chary of funding the idea. The show has gone on to become a global success, responsible in part for pushing drama's share of BBC Worldwide revenues from one-third to half of its top line. On the other hand, there is Game of Thrones or House of Cards. Both are well-done shows, one from commercial cable channel HBO and the other from online video streaming service, Netflix. These have come out of the US, a market that does not have a patronage investor but evolved on its own.

It would seem then that the ability, to invest without the immediate pressure of returns, makes a bigger difference in natural history and factual programming. Note that many natural history broadcasters are dumbing down programming or adding glamorous presenters to get bigger audiences.

All of last week, the UK papers were full of members of parliament' questioning the licence fee and the benefits it brings. For someone from India, where the state uses more than Rs 1,200 crore of taxpayer money every year to fund Doordarshan and All India Radio, brands that cannot hold Indian audiences, let alone global ones, this seemed like looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Twitter: @vanitakohlik
Disclosure: The columnist was in Liverpool at the invitation and expense of BBC Worldwide

First Published: Tue, March 03 2015. 21:48 IST