Sunday 15 February 2009

The Guardian: Overseas sales flops costing TV millions

Jane Robins Media Correspondent

THE SPANISH have no time for Men Behaving Badly and there are few Chinese fans of Coronation Street. In fact, British television programmes do not, in general, compete well overseas - a fact causing concern to Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture.

At a meeting with television executives tomorrow, he will urge them to make British programmes more globally competitive. Mr Smith is also setting up a panel to look into British programme exports. Its members will include the Carlton managing director, Lord Alli, Granada boss Jules Burns and the BBC Worldwide chief executive, Rupert Gavin.

All concerned have a tendency to point to the great successes of British television, but then add the proviso "could do better".

Mr Smith said yesterday: "We are one of the most creative nations on earth, as the many TV programmes which have been hits in countries across the globe show."

However, he added: "We have the potential to do a lot better and that is what this inquiry is all about."

The inquiry reflects dismay at the fact that Britain has a pounds 280m trade deficit in television programmes, despite making many dramas and documentaries that draw critical acclaim and win awards.

While Teletubbies has been sold to 59 broadcasters in 44 countries, the successful drama series Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren, was rejected by several French and Italian channels as being too grim and dark for their typical audiences.

Cracker, in which Robbie Coltrane played a criminal psychologist, also failed to cash in on its British success. The Americans made their own version without Coltrane, which failed to win the awards and critical acclaim of the original. Nevertheless, it was sold to more international markets.

US programmes account for about 80 per cent of the world television market, compared with Britain's 3 per cent, just ahead of France and Germany.

It is a tough market to crack as each country's television schedules are dominated by homegrown programmes. The few slots for imported offerings are nearly always filled by American-made shows.

A report commissioned by Mr Smith last year, Building a Global Audience, concluded that British drama and comedy series are too short for many foreign channels, and their running times eccentric. While the British might make a documentary series of three 45-minute programmes, other countries like their programmes to run for either half an hour, or an hour, and to have a minimum of 13 episodes.

The report also stated that foreign buyers are alienated by the negative image of Britain portrayed in many UK programmes. "The overseas viewer is shown a relatively poor, down-at-heel place which does not inspire interest," it said.

One way forward for British programme makers would be to make more documentaries on the weather. A television genre known as "weatherporn", including everything from tornadoes to meteors and dinosaurs, is doing well internationally because its subject matter is not culturally specific.

British humour may not travel well, says one television boss, but international buyers will take an interest in a documentary on the likelihood of an asteroid hitting earth.

Another approach is to sell the format of an entertainment show, and let overseas companies make their own version - a formula that has worked for Changing Rooms, Ready, Steady, Cook and Surprise Surprise.

Visual comedy, with no language barrier, is also a winner - hence the international following for Mr Bean.

The Hits


The selling of the music show is, says the BBC, "the way of the future" - each edition is customised for EU markets with local presenters. France, Spain and Germany have joined.


Programmes on the risks of natural phenomena such as tornadoes and asteroids are all selling well because they can be amended by overseas buyers who add their own commentaries.


Hard, dark costume dramas have limited overseas success - but light- hearted romps from Tom Jones to The Scarlet Pimpernel tend to be popular. And so does Jane Austen.

And The Misses


Did sell well in some countries, but generally suffered from its dark nature. French buyers found it too "realistic" and objected to its storylines based on drugs and sex.


An American version was made but quickly failed. Some scenes were deemed to be too gross for an American audience but the blander remake didn't appeal either.


Big British soaps don't sell well overseas because they are so gloomy. Australians have more success. The BBC did, however, once flirt with the idea of an Indian version of EastEnders.