BBC’s big plans for India…

11 May,2017


Here’s a disclosure: It doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, it can be quite a pain. So we had done this interview in March 2017, soon after BBC Earth was unveiled, but the hard disk on our computer crashed and we lost the edited version of the transcript. Redoing a 4000-word interview is always difficult, and then we got busy with other things. But the interview makes for very interesting reading, so here it is.

Although here in India, BBC is known more for news on television and radio. In fact until non-government players came on the scene, BBC continued to be the most trusted source for news in India. But what few know outside of media and entertainment and those familiar with television content internationally, BBC is also very widely known for its non-news content. Whether it’s fictional or factual entertainment, BBC has had a huge presence internationally and an increasing one in India. The London-based broadcast major has been engaged in production of some top-rated content on entertainment television including the likes of Jhalak Dikhla Jaa, Nach Baliye and the just-started India Banega Manch.

In a freewheeling interview, David Weiland, EVP, Asia at BBC Worldwide and Myleeta Aga, SVP and GM South East Asia and South Asia at BBC Worldwide, speak with MxMIndia


The non-news part of BBC took a long time coming to India. It should have been here much earlier, given that there’s an appetite for content of this type.

David Weiland: Yes. But when you negotiate a joint venture, it takes time. Particularly with two companies like Sony and BBC, who have big corporate structures. The other element is that in India, one has to go through the process of license applications and all that, and that takes time too. But this is a good time, since we’re now a part of the Sony family and then there’s the IPL in April.


The IPL has been there for 10 years…

David: Yes. But we missed last year’s IPL because we were only just finalising the whole thing. When it comes to a launch, you have to pick a good time, like when the audience is available and not necessarily on vacation. The IPL gives us a great opportunity for a ‘crosspiration’, a term that’s been coined to refer to ‘cross-over inspiration’.

This is not the first time that BBC has come in, outside of news. But you had a mixed experience earlier, when the channel was very popular but it didn’t work well. Have things changed since then?

David: Yes. In terms of BBC, we’re mainly a premium-content company. So we’re fairly agnostic about our reach-to-market in a country. Sometimes it can be with our own wholly-owned, branded services and sometimes it can be in partnership or a joint venture with other people for branded services. At other times, it can be straight licensing to other channels or digital services. In India, there’s been an evolution in terms of how the Pay TV market has developed, and it was clear to us that in a market like India, it would be better for us to be in a partnership with a company that shared our brand and content values. Earlier, we were doing it on our own, but it was difficult at a time when digitisation was delayed, delayed and delayed!


So you prefer that somebody else put in the money?

David: It’s not necessarily about that. It’s more about picking the best — and possibly fastest — route to success. When you’re in a joint venture, you’re sharing both the risk and the investment. And we’ve had quite a lot of experience with this. In the UK, we have a channel joint venture partnership, and similarly in the US and in Canada. In some countries in Asia and South East Asia, we wholly own our channel. So it’s really about the best and easiest way to reach the biggest audience. And when you have the kind of distribution might that Sony brings to the table, trying to replicate that, for a full commercial channel like BBC Earth, is a difficult thing to do. It’s not impossible, but this is much more straightforward.


So why did you look at Sony, and not any other network? Besides the fact that you think similarly and all the things you mentioned earlier, there’s obviously something more to this than just partnership numbers, isn’t there?

David: You might need to ask Sony this, but I think it’s fair to say — and it’s public knowledge — that Sony didn’t have a channel in the premium factual space. I think when you have a partnership, both sides have to feel that they can get something out of it because they also have their own needs. I think it just coincided. Moreover, we did talk to other people, but [Sony was] the best fit. They needed a factual channel in the premium space, and we needed a strong distributor.


Now that you’ve started this, are you looking to bring any of your other channels back to India?

David: We’re always looking, but I don’t know whether it’ll be in partnership, or even if it’ll be with Sony. We don’t have any concrete plans, but we’re agile and the market is moving in so many ways. We’ve now established a relationship [with Sony], so it makes sense for us to jointly explore other opportunities. BBC, as you know, has a wide range of content that would lend itself to new, potential channels.


Is there any specific direction you might look in, given Indian market conditions?

David: When you look at the global brands we now have – there’s BBC Earth which is premium-factual; BBC First is premium-drama; we’ve got CBeebies for preschool kids, and we’ve got BBC Brit, which is more male-skewed, factual entertainment — we’d certainly be interested in looking in those areas. We’re not suddenly going to go outside and create a cricket channel or something for older kids or women’s’ lifestyle. We are quite clear about the spaces where we think our content can make a difference, and those are the areas that we’d like to be in.


But you could be speaking to other networks, and have an arrangement with Star or Zee or Viacom, for instance?

David: Theoretically, yes.


There’s no commitment with Sony as such?

David: When you work with a partner, there’s an understanding of how that partnership will work so…


Any thoughts on CBeebies? CBeebies was very popular when it was here, though the circumstances were different then.

David: There are no concrete plans, but we have a very successful CBeebies channel here in South East Asia and North Asia, and we have an increasing number of CBeebies branded blogs, so that’s another way to get our content out. Whenever you want to launch a new service, you want to look at the market and whether there is any appetite for that content. With CBeebies in India, there probably is. But does the business model add up? I think that’s what one needs to look at. I wouldn’t say watch this space, but it’s certainly something we’re considering.


You have some marquee shows which are there on channels here, and now you have a tie up with Amazon. So is that a direction you’re looking at? While as a content company, you may be platform-agnostic, but is there a greater thrust towards any specific platform?

David: No. But let’s talk a bit more about what India means for us. It’s a fairly unique market, and we have pretty much all of our businesses represented here. We have a very successful and strong local production unit here which produces marquee shows; we have a successful TV-accessing business to both TV channels and digital platforms; and we now have something in the channel space as well. We like to have a number of different businesses. In some markets, we are more than just a TV-licensing business. So the idea really is to grow those three strands of the business and potentially add more to it. India, for us, is a very important market globally.


Where would India place in your international business pie?

David: I’d say in the Top 10. We obviously have big business in the UK, the US and, very importantly, in Australia. As well as in some Western European countries. I’ve been in this role for three years, almost all of it in Asia, and I’d say China and India are now in that Top 10. Not necessarily by size of current business, but for the potential growth and opportunity. If you are a global media company, you can’t ignore the two most populous countries that have strong economic growth, and still have room for growth in pay television, free-to-air television, digital television and such. We’d be crazy to turn our backs on India, which has the added advantage of the BBC brand being well-known here. BBC Earth is important because I think after news, the genre that people associate with BBC the most, is documentaries.


Except that the familiarity and popularity of the BBC brand is with an older segment. The young and growing population might not be as loyal to it.

David: Yes, to a certain degree I think we’re starting to do things in other spaces that is [expanding] our connection. In India, you’ve got a young, growing segment that’s travelling more, is more into global brands. Sometimes, the challenge for us may be to associate the programme brand with the BBC brand, but in the case of Doctor Who and Sherlock that connection is clear…[they’re very popular with Indian youngsters]


By the time Sherlock was aired in India many had already seen it…

David: Piracy, particularly in Asia, is still a growing issue. And it’s interesting that this year — with the latest season of Sherlock, which debuted in January — our partners in India were Sony, again, and AXN, who were pretty much on day and date. So I think it’s incumbent on all of us content owners to try and get our content out at the same time as it releases, say, in the UK.


Is competition from access on the internet as much for a format like BBC Earth as other shows, given that consumers would want to see things in better resolution?

David: Yes. But factual content probably is less pirated than dramas, and I think there’s less emphasis on having those global moments. Although I’d say for our biggest shows like Planet Earth 2, we did have global releases in large parts of the world, and each of our markets benefitted from that.


Myleeta, what has been your experience with Indian languages? I know that BBC Earth is in four languages, including English. But going forward, are you looking at a lot of Indian language content and/or customising it for Indian languages?

Myleeta: Definitely. I think factual content lends itself very well to languages because you don’t have so many character voices. So it’s very clear that these four languages are required, to give us full, national coverage for the channel. Also, if you look at our CBeebies content and some of our dramas, we’re increasingly trying to look for partners who would be interested in putting them into [other] languages. It’s not easy. So kids’ content is customarily dubbed, but dramas and movies are a little bit harder.

There’s also a limited audience for English movies dubbed into regional languages, but in our production business, we’ve done quite a bit of work in Kannada, Bengali and Marathi. Those are the three languages we’ve done productions in. We would like to be doing more. We’ve worked with the Viacom language group [to explore] every language cluster there. It’s about finding the right format, and being able to produce it to the level at which we would want to pitch it and steer — because regional budgets are different — and still deliver the kind of BBC quality, with language customisation. You need to also be sensitive to what the market wants.


Like your partnership with Sony, for language productions will you, for instance, talk to a network like Sun?

Myleeta: Yes


In South India, what is the appetite for a full-blown channel from your stable, as in your arrangement with Sony?

David: I think BBC Earth will be available


I do remember Discovery Tamil, which did a fair amount of customising, with some moderate success.

Myleeta: Yes, and when you actually look at the customising they did, it was quite marginal. So when creating an entirely new language feed in this genre, it has to be clear that it’s very different if you’re looking at drama or something from the general entertainment channel. But in this genre, the amount of customisation you need to do, is very little.


In a new scenario, where rural audiences preferences are also being measured, where do you see scope for your content, given that it’s largely urban-focussed?

Myleeta: We have a lot of natural history and science on BBC Earth, but we think that the content – perhaps a slightly different mix of it — would work really well with rural audiences too. There’s a visual element to the storytelling which is fact-based, but it is also engaging to watch.


So do you have some kind of growth plans and targets for India?

David: We do.


Obviously you do, but can you share some plans?

David: We don’t really do that. Around Asia, we’ve seen good growth in India, China, North East Asia, Korea and Japan, and I think that’s set to continue.


And that’s happening because of your content production?

David: It’s a range of things. We’re now set up across the region, where we can explore the opportunities quickly. Our content is resonating more [with viewers]. We’ve had two of three big global films; we’ve had Sherlock Season 4; Planet Earth 2, and we’ve got new seasons of Doctor Who and Top Gear (which opens this weekend). So there are lots of these big, noisy shows and that’s benefitted us. There’s a general, natural growth in those economies anyway in digital, in terms of a growth in digital platforms across the region. There are new entrants in the market who are hungry for good, premium content.


What about things on the anvil for India? Can you share some of that?

Myleeta: We can’t share the specifics because broadcasting will want to make the announcement, but we’re doing a massive amount of production at the moment…


Ah, but you’ve been doing a massive amount of production always, right?

Myleeta: Yes but now it’s really…



Myleeta: Yes. We have five shows on the floors, and we have two, massive general entertainment formats that we’re producing. One is ‘Nach’ for Star, and there’s another one we’re doing for Colors. We’re also now working more and more in the area of scripted formats, so BBC has some really compelling scripted shows that we’re looking at adapting for digital and TV.



Myleeta: There’s a bunch that I love, but we can’t tell you which ones…


But still?

Myleeta: (Laughs) Like Sherlock. There are many, so I think we’d really like to get a scripted format away in this market, in the new year. That’s not something that’s actually been commissioned yet, but there are quite a few conversations on, and there’s a lot of excitement around trying new storytelling. [because a] lot of the scripted formats haven’t really delivered.


Is there any specific growth area that you might look at?

Myleeta: Producing for digital is something that we’re working on, and then there is our branded content production. We did ‘Har Ghar Kuch Kehta hai’ with Asian Paints, which was extremely successful and we’re hoping to do a few more like that in the next few months. The skillset that you need for branded content, for digital content and GEC mainstreams, singing-dancing and fiction shows, are all very different, and we’ve homegrown each of them. We’ve got genre expertise in pretty much all of these, and that’s something we’re particularly proud of. This is the first year where we’re properly bonafide, doing massive amounts in each of them. We started out with non-fiction and doing a little bit of fiction. Now we’re doing quite a bit, and I don’t know if there are any other companies that have been able to work on [all of] these four big buckets of content, in production.


As a content producer and content maker, how much do you get influenced by ratings that come out every week? I’m sure you do, because all channels do…

Myleeta: Yep, we don’t have a choice. But I have a very simple view on ratings. Just like when kids go to school and are judged by their grades, when you make a TV show, you have to accept that you’ll be judged by your ratings. So we take our ratings very seriously.

What we try to do, at the same time, is also keep the bigger picture in mind. If we see a trend in the ratings and see a certain journey that we’re on in our content arc, then we might [change tack] and fortunately broadcasters, most of the time, are open to that.


But there are also comparisons of, for instance, ‘Nach’ with ‘Jhalak Dikhla Ja’ or ‘Rising Star’ with some singing shows.

Myleeta: Of course. There are four singing shows on at the same time, it’s crazy! But ratings are a pretty unsophisticated system, and I’m not just talking about India. Globally, too, I think there’s been a shift. It’s still the currency, certainly, for commercial channels and how they operate in advertising, but I think increasingly people are looking at social media. You can get a real bias. We had Planet Earth 2 launching in America and we created some special, short-film content for Snapchat. Interestingly enough, that caught a bigger audience than the linear TV channel. So the engagement [on social media] is huge now. In the UK, we certainly look at that, and catch up on digital, which isn’t really measured. So I think you’ve got to have a more holistic view. In India, it’s still very much driven by the system, but more sophisticated channels and programmers are now looking at social media buzz as well.


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