Content is at the heart of BBC Worldwide’s business. Presenting drama, factual entertainment, etc in some markets through its own channels, and in others, through third party intermediaries, BBC Worldwide sensed several opportunities to re-enter the Indian television space with the launch of Sony BBC Earth in partnership with Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN). BrandWagon’s Chandni Mathur catches up with BBC Worldwide’s Paul Dempsey to know more about the company’s plans. Edited excerpts:
BBC Worldwide earlier shut down BBC Entertainment and CBeebies in India, and has now re-entered the non-news market with Sony BBC Earth. Is the market more conducive now?
Three years ago, we did a lot of work to make our television channels fit for the future in this challenging world where I expected that less well defined channels would find it difficult to survive in a hybrid market. We were clear when we launched our three big global brands — BBC Earth, BBC Brit and BBC First that they needed to be very specific and targeted.
In one sense, BBC Entertainment particularly was less focussed; that was a challenge and it was coupled at the time with what was a difficult trading environment. The market wasn’t digitised and payments for carriage made the economics unviable. But at that time we had hoped we would return as India is an important market and I am glad we returned with a much more targeted channel (Sony BBC Earth).
We have high hopes for CBeebies around the world and it is a space where BBC performed very strongly. Our hope is we will find a way to bring CBeebies content in a branded environment back to Indian audiences whether through a linear channel or digital services.
What opportunity did you see in launching BBC Earth through a partnership with SPN?
Being on linear channels at the moment is a difficult place all around the world. It’s tough being a channel operator. The economics are difficult, there are lots of challenges to pay television and therefore consumers are making choices of channels to pay for on their services. You need to have a strong bouquet of channels in negotiation with platform operators. So, it makes sense to be in a partnership with somebody that owns strong channels, where you have got the ability to achieve a good price for your channels in distribution.
How do you see the performance of the Asian market vis-à-vis other markets in terms of growth, audience behaviour and content?
I see the same themes playing out around the world but in slightly different ways. In some of the more mature television markets, particularly North America and Western Europe, there are consumers still wanting to enjoy linear television and still prepared to pay for subscriptions but perhaps not entirely. Therefore, the growth of pay television is slowing and even declining in certain areas as people move to more flexible services especially digital subscriptions. There are markets like parts of Africa and certain parts of Asia where there hasn’t been such a strong heritage of pay television, and I see younger audience there going straight to digital.
Markets like India are hybrid where there is still growth in pay television and it’s still a popular choice but you can also see that being supplemented by new digital services as well. I’m excited about building brands in the linear world here but at the same time, am thinking about how quickly we can move them into the digital world too.
Do you plan to bring BBC’s digital assets to India?
We have no plans, though I think wherever we have a linear channel at the moment, ultimately our ambition would be for it to migrate into a digital service. Part of our purpose is to build the biggest audience we can for our TV shows.
What sort of content do you see gaining traction?
The four genres specifically that work well for us are drama, factual, factual entertainment and children particularly the pre-school segment. What we have seen over the last three years is the growth of premium drama and it is now contributing to 50% of our total sales. I am not surprised by that growth. There is a global phenomenon around television drama; the quality of it is exceptional.
Scripted content has always been big, but do you see formats take centre-stage as well?
Formats is an important part of our business. We have always had success with them and Dancing with the Stars is a great example with 53 versions of it successful across the globe; we have Bake Off which has 23 versions, seven versions of Top Gear, etc.
The reason I expect them to become more important is that I am seeing a trend around in the world, in more mature markets particularly, where when local broadcasters look at the challenge of global subscription video-on-demand services, their response is to become even more local in their proposition. So they are super serving the local audience needs and there is an opportunity for us to help those broadcasters do that in a relatively safe way, by taking a tried and tested format that has worked elsewhere and make it locally for that market.
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BBC has led the way in taking its services digital first with News Online, Radio Online and iPlayer in the UK. With content costs rising, how do you plan to leverage this across markets?
We are either making our content available through digital services where digitally savvy audiences already exist or in some markets, creating digital services ourselves. For example, we announced a partnership with ITV for BritBox in North America. In Asia, we are pioneering a BBC Player, a companion to our linear channels but it also includes SVoD and digital-only channels. We have launched it in Singapore and we are in talks for some markets in Western Europe as well.
We have no plans currently to take a digital service direct to the consumer and it makes more sense for us to operate within some big aggregator environment. I would love to have a digital service in India; it’s all about timing. I would like to build awareness through linear channels and build fan bases for our content, and over time as the infrastructure develops and the consumer behaviour, appetite and affordability enables it, I would be disappointed if India wasn’t one of the markets where we would have digital services.