Outside the UK the BBC has traditionally been best known for its 24-hour news service, but with its main commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, working on developing content sales for linear and digital platforms in addition to local production for licenced formats, this perception looks set to change.
BBC Worldwide took a major leap forward in 2014 when it started to roll out BBC First, a channel concept designed for international markets featuring premium drama. The channel, which features popular series such as Sherlock, Luther and Doctor Who, went live in the Middle East and North Africa in February 2016, available exclusively on OSN’s network.
This added to BBC Worldwide’s existing base of business lines including the licenced production of shows such as Dancing with the Stars and Bake Off, live events and merchandising, and distribution of content on other formats, including on digital platforms.
The strategy appears to be working for the BBC. In 2015/16, BBC Worldwide generated headline sales of more than GBP1 billion and profits of GBP133.8 million on the back of its growing international content sales and licencing business, with brands such as Top Gear, Dancing with the Stars and Doctor Who attracting a loyal and growing following.
And certainly the Middle East, with its fast developing media industry, large population of young people, and rapidly expanding penetration of high speed internet, is viewed as a market with huge potential for BBC Worldwide.
“The Middle East is a key region for us,” says Natasha Hussain, vice president and general manager of BBC Worldwide for Middle East and Mediterranean Region. “We have a thriving business here across multiple lines, we have a healthy content business across linear and digital platforms. We have local production where we licence formats – shows like Dancing with the Stars for example – and that’s something that we want to do more of.
“We were really proud to bring BBC FIRST as a dedicated channel, exclusively to the Middle East on OSN. It showcases the best of British premium drama, scheduled and dedicated explicitly for the Middle East region. So you will see Sherlock, Doctor Who, War & Peace on that channel very close to UK screenings, and in some cases simulcast.”
For Hussain, the success of BBC First internationally is really down to the level of investment that goes into creating the content in the first place. “The investment into British premium drama and our brands is second to none,” she says.
“It will be content that has broad appeal, and that partly depends on the investment that has gone into the series; the storylines, the level of talent and big recognisable names, which is key.”
This is especially apparent from looking at the calibre of the actors in series such as Sherlock and War & Peace, and the locations used. “What we are proud to represent at BBC Worldwide on behalf of our partners, is fantastic storytelling that really pushes the boundaries and that is the difference between us and some of our competitors like the US studios where their lengths are much more prescriptive in terms of having a defined number of episodes, whereas we can play about with it a bit more, be a bit more unique and do more one-off events as well,” Hussain says.
The BBC also has a strong reputation for natural history and wildlife documentaries and Hussain believes there are opportunities to expand this type of content in the region. “We have a strong history and lineage in terms of BBC Earth and natural history programme making, which we are hugely proud of,” Hussain says. “We have got Planet Earth 2 which is due to launch in the UK in the next few months and that is one of my expansion plans, thinking about BBC Earth and what we can do with that as a brand in the region.”
Part of the success of the BBC’s dramas in the MENA region may also be down to its investment in subtitling of premium dramas. The biggest programming highlights, which premiere at 9pm every day and popular titles planned at 7pm on weekdays are subtitled in Arabic, as are all premium premieres. However, soap operas are not subtitled, and neither are the ‘Express from the UK’ programmes due to the tight turnaround times. This attention to subtitling is expected to increase the reach of these series to some segments of the Arabic speaking population, who might not otherwise watch them.
Hussain adds that BBC Worldwide is also looking at the possibility of dubbing some dramas. “It could make sense to dub some dramas like War & Peace, which has had such a strong reaction with expats and Arab audiences.” It’s certainly true that dubbed content performs well in the MENA region: Turkish Ramadan dramas are just one example, and Hussain also points to the popularity of Korean dramas shown on some free to air platforms in the region.
In April this year, BBC Worldwide launched CBeebies, a BBC channel dedicated for pre-school children, as a linear channel in the Middle East & North Africa, exclusively to subscribers of beIN DTH service. This was the first time CBeebies has entered the MENA market as a full channel and Hussain is optimistic about its potential due to the trust that the BBC brand inspires among parents, and because the target audience – pre-school children – is continually regenerating.
In terms of creating content in the region, Hussain believes there is plenty of room for development, both in terms of producing locally through partners and through the kind of licencing model used to produce shows such as Dancing with the Stars. Indeed, Hussain says there is huge potential to film natural history content, documentaries, dramas and more in the region. “There’s so much we can do. We filmed in the region in the past; Wild Arabia came out of the Natural History unit and that had a dedicated focus on filming in the Empty Quarter and liaising with the tourism authorities in Saudi Arabia.”
Another show that has filmed in the Middle East in the past is Top Gear, which is hugely popular in the region and especially in the Gulf. Hussain says that the ambition for Top Gear is for it to return to the Middle East soon.
“We know how successful and popular that is here because the magazines are here in Arabic as well as English. The fans just absolutely love it and we find that kind of content works across linear, digital, online,” she adds. “They seem to love that irreverent humour. We have filmed at the Yas Marina track and we filmed in the Moroccan desert because we know that the fans love that.”
In terms of the current success of BBC First on OSN, Hussain says that it is still too early to judge, although early indications suggest the team at BBC Worldwide has struck a chord in the region. “It’s been fantastic to see that there has been such great feedback. I think that comes from the level of research that the team back in London has done, exploring what audiences want and programming it specifically for the region, taking into account prime time and what people are watching.
“It’s really interesting because we learned that comedy as well as drama was a big thing, so we’ve created and expanded the comedy strand as well on a Thursday night.”
With so much content at hand, BBC Worldwide also sees digital platforms as an opportunity rather than as a threat to existing linear business models. “We’re seeing a lot of opportunities now with the rise of digital,” Hussain says. “Netflix is here, which is great for us because it presents more opportunities to partner, and for us we are platform agnostic. To an extent it’s about building the brands and reaching as many people in our audiences as possible. It’s interesting to see how the marketplaces evolve.”
BBC Worldwide is already looking to place certain dramas on digital platforms in line with strategies that have worked in the UK, and taking into account regional licencing agreements. For example, the new Anthony Horowitz drama, New Blood, will be made available exclusively on the on-demand platform OSN Play in the MENA region from 15th September. “We don’t see OTT as cannibalising linear. We see it as an opportunity to play in many different spaces and reach consumers in slightly different ways. We’re not seeing any particular decline, we’re seeing growth, and competition fuels new ideas as well so that’s helping,” Hussain says.