BBC Worldwide is the largest TV distributor outside of the US. President of global markets Paul Dempsey discusses the global challenges for the firm and talks about the international success of shows including Sherlock and Top Gear.


What part of BBC Worldwide do you represent?

The term ‘Global Markets’ covers the non-English speaking world and I’m responsible for the BBCW activities that go on in these 200 regions, spanning from Latin America, Western, Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Asia.

A few years ago, we realised that most of our business was coming from the mature, English-speaking markets and that, without a proper focus, we we’d miss out on opportunities in these emerging markets.

What activities does this involve?

We are primarily in the programming sales business so building an audience through other broadcast partners is our mainstay. We also work on behalf of 200 indies – we are the largest distributer of programming outside the US. There are also a dozen or so territories in which we already have enough traction or sufficient content to take a more brand-led approach and develop platforms - linear channels and/or digital services. We also get involved in producing content in local markets, and brand exploitation via books, DVD sell-through and, increasingly, live events and shows.

Why do you see global markets as such a rich source of growth?

Just the sheer size of the market – it comprises of an estimated 6.5billion consumers. Wherever I am on my travels around the world – in Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, India, China – I see the emergence of a group of people, significant in number, commonly labelled as the emerging middle classes. They are interested in expanding their horizons and are curious about the world.

There’s a desire among this group for locally relevant, stimulating, mind-expanding content – which we have plenty of. There’s also a particular interest for content with a British flavour, which plays out well in drama, history and factual entertainment.

What are the challenges of breaking into new markets?

Employing local people in our offices is key to working in new markets – we employ people who themselves could be the target audience for that market. However, we also need local teams who are able to retain a sensibility which is appropriate to the BBC brand and who also understand the ‘Britishness’ of the content.

Sometimes breaking new markets it is simply about taking your time and thinking about the pace of your expansion. We are in the premium content business but we don’t live in a world of ubiquitous high speed broadband. While you might look at India and think that its 1.2bn-strong young audience would feed a powerful digital market, what you don’t have on the ground yet are the speeds to make this a particularly easy journey. So it’s about pacing yourself and following the audience to where they are watching content rather than restricting the audience to get the content on our terms.

What territories are you currently focusing on?

We’ve been in all over the world for the last 25 years but the new global focus is driving deeper into markets. France and Germany are still important territories for us as are the Nordic regions and Benelux where we see potential to expand on the brand led platforms.  South Africa also connects well with our brand and we are excited about opportunities in the emerging markets such as India, China, Sub Saharan Africa, Brazil and Mexico.

How important is China as a market?

Our Chinese business has doubled over the last three years and so has the depth of our relationship with the key organisations there. We are the biggest distributor to China by quite some way because we’ve taken the time to build up relationships and make connections. There has also been a lot of government-level effort to forge creative industry partnerships which we’ve taken part in, including initiatives such as the GREAT campaign.

China’s love of Sherlock has been well documented - why do you think this show resonates?

I think Sherlock is a great example of how you can have a very successful business and still operate as a small or niche player. It wasn’t as if Hartswood Films sat down and decided that they needed to create a Chinese flavour to Sherlock. If you can get it right with strong characters, a good script and brilliant technical performances you can create universal event drama at its best.

Sherlock has also had a run at the box office. Why?

We’ve been quite active in following audiences to where they want to experience our product and taking our made-for-TV shows and putting them on a large theatrical screen so that they can enjoy it as an event.

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride was enjoyed by over 7m people in cinemas worldwide. Over half of this audience was in China where box office revenue has exceeded $19m, while in South Korea, it took over $7 million. 

Part of it is that the production is so super premium in quality that it shines through on the big screen. It’s also a really great, shared experience that people who are similarly passionate about the show and its characters can enjoy together.

You signed a deal with Mango TV in China; what does that mean, and what do you hope will come from it?

We’ve signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which is the basis of intent to work together. It’s a great example of understanding the way business is best done in different environments. It’s easy to be sceptical about the significance of ceremonial acts like this - an MOU can look empty of detail - but it has proven a valuable first step in terms of making a formal commitment with key organisations and receiving patronage from a senior level for a mandate to work with us and flesh out those details.

These partnerships tend to consist of two stages. First there’s the ceremonial statement of intent at the beginning – the exchange of gifts and it’s all very nice. The next step is then to agree on just one project (not ten, just one) that locks all parties into a partnership. It’s important to take it one step at a time and once that project has finished only then ask ‘What shall we do next?’

Top Gear China has had over 300m TV and online views. How do you go about adapting successful formats such as this into new territories?

My main advice to producers would be to think about the IP and what you can do to tweak it by deeply understanding the culture you are selling into. Don’t turn them into exact replicas of the original but do turn them into something that could act as a great companion piece.

Part of the value of taking successful formats into new territories is that they act as a calling card to local broadcasters for our world-class production expertise. We have producers who go in and support format buyers when they are looking to create a local version.

It will be interesting to watch this formula play back into the UK version of Top Gear with Chris Evans and his new team.

Do you think Top Gear’s new line-up will perform as well as its previous incarnation did in global markets?

Global formats like Top Gear are very organic and have been evolving for years. At MIP when we unveiled the new line up I made the point of reminding people that in the 40 years the show has been running it’s had 38 presenters.

We’ll be running a special focus on Top Gear during BBC Showcase (the BBC’s Liverpool-based annual programming sales and distribution event which starts this weekend). The 40-year old programme is now as old as Showcase itself and so we will look to see how it will reinvent itself.