Planet Earth was the most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned by the BBC, and the first to be filmed in high definition
Planet Earth was the most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned by the BBC, and the first to be filmed in high definition

The second wave of British colonisation has begun — but instead of using guns and an army, the queen and crew are taking over foreign homes one television show at a time.

The British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) through its commercial subsidiary, BBC Worldwide, is exporting premium content to the rest of the world for a price. Some of its most popular programmes include Sherlock, starring the dishy Benedict Cumberbatch, and high-adrenaline motoring show Top Gear, presented by Matt le Blanc.

The funds BBC Worldwide rakes in are nothing to scoff at. In 2015/2016 the unit made headline sales of £1.03bn and headline profit of £133.8m. This money ended up in the public broadcaster’s coffers, allowing it to fulfil its core mandate: to enrich British lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.

The bottom line

BBC Worldwide vice-president and general manager in Africa Joel Churcher says it’s not a fluke that the BBC and its subsidiaries do so well. "People pay their TV licences in the UK. Until about 2014, it was a criminal offence not to ... Now you will get a really big fine. The BBC as a result generates £3.7bn/year from the fee, which funds everything from radio, print, digital and television."

The BBC runs seven free-to-air channels in the UK for an annual licence fee of £145.50.

The SA Broadcasting Corp (SABC) also generates funds through an annual TV licence fee. R265/year gives citizens access to three channels. By conservative estimates only one-third of 10m television-owning South Africans pay the fee. That amounts to R1.7bn/year in uncollected income.

It is our job as the public broadcaster to be involved in the creative industry. We nurture talent ... Once you start nurturing the creative industry, you can start to export [content]
Joel Churcher

Churcher says the licence fee is the meat and bones of any public broadcaster.

"In that respect I feel for them," he says of the SABC. "Without those funds the SABC probably can’t achieve what it would desire to achieve. This leaves space open for a player like MultiChoice. They also get [criticised] for not bringing [in] new content, but in essence that is not their job. It’s the public broadcaster’s job."

MultiChoice has certainly stepped up for consumers aching for more content — but access comes at a price. A premium DStv subscription costs R789/month.

Aletta Alberts, general manager of content at MultiChoice SA, says while there is a large appetite for locally produced shows, BBC content remains very popular. Shows such as Pointless, Planet Earth and Call the Midwife have kept audiences glued to their screens.

Alberts is responsible for acquiring channels and managing them through their life cycle. She and her team are also responsible for the content on MultiChoice’s Catch Up and DStv Now services.

"Local content is definitely a big thing," she says. "This is true for many places around the world. I don’t think this is only true for South Africans. I think people want to see a reflection of themselves on television.

"This is going to be a big focus for us in future. We are already getting content from places like Kenya and Nigeria, but outside of Nollywood there isn’t a large quantity of productions to choose from. People, however, still enjoy BBC content. The BBC certainly delivers many hours of content for us."

An extended offering

Alberts says MultiChoice will extend its offering of shows on BBC channels, and BBC Brit is in line for a shake-up.

"Brit will be more entertainment driven. Generally it has been male focused and Top Gearchannels. We don’t buy these channels for local content, but where they lend themselves to formats that can be localised — like Strictly Come Dancing and Bake Off — then they are even five times more popular here in SA," she says.

BBC Worldwide has about 20 offices around the globe, one of which is in Johannesburg. It has six pay-TV channels with MultiChoice, namely BBC Brit, BBC Earth, BBC Lifestyle, BBC First, BBC World News and CBeebies.

"Certainly one of the biggest parts of our business is the Cema region [Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa]," says Grant Welland, BBC executive vice-president for the region. "We sell finished products and formats to broadcasters around the world. We exist to maximise the value of BBC intellectual property. We take the shows that we produce, make money out of them in other countries, and bring those funds back to the BBC to invest in more content."

Welland says the BBC has realised the importance of developing talent; it is one of the factors behind the UK broadcaster’s success.

"We also have an increasingly important role in taking UK talent and creativity to the world. American content still reaches that much further than British content, but we are well placed as number two," he says. "We produce really good content and it travels. It is [the result of] years of being in the game and developing our people and our business."

Churcher agrees. "It is our job as the public broadcaster to be involved in the creative industry. We nurture talent," he says. "It’s no accident that when you turn on any show in the US there is a British actor there. It’s not because they are brilliant — though they are — the issue is that we have government-run academies that groom all talent for the international stage. It’s a nice mantra that other public broadcasters could look at. Once you start nurturing the creative industry, you can start to export [content]."

New shows that DStv subscribers can expect to see this year include Tribal Bootcamp, which will air on BBC Earth. In this series, stand-up comedian Joel Dommett and his friend Nish Kumar visit six diverse communities that live highly active lifestyles based on ancient forms of exercise. Dommett, who is a self-confessed gym bunny, tries to see if he can keep up. Kumar is there to laugh at his failures. The two visit Maasai warriors in Africa, the Tagbanua in the Philippines, the Xavante tribe in the Brazilian rainforest, Shaolin monks and more.

Another will be McMafia. Inspired by the insider interviews in Misha Glenny’s bestselling book, the drama probes and exposes the global network of organised crime. The series is filmed in locations as varied as Dubai, Russia, India and London.

Alberts says BBC World News has also invested heavily in Africa, so viewers can expect to see more local content on that service.

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