BBC Studios Boss Talks “Excellent” ‘Doctor Who’ Deal, M&A & International Growth
Doctor Who’s latest regeneration represents “excellent commercial value,” according to BBC Studios boss Tom Fussell.
Sitting down for a wide-ranging interview with Deadline in mid-January, the CEO described the attention-grabbing deals his team struck with Bad Wolf and Disney+ that have reshaped the Doctor’s future ahead of the series’ 60th birthday. In short, they represent the future of a more aggressively commercial BBC Studios.
In 2021, BBC Studios announced it would for the first time co-produce Doctor Who with Bad Wolf. On the distribution side, BBC Studios since has signed a landmark global streaming agreement with Disney+, pulling back from existing territory licensing deals in the process. The deal is one of the biggest struck in the commercial outfit’s history.
Both partnerships highlight how the BBC Studios led by Fussell and BBC Director General Tim Davie is unashamedly and aggressively focused on generating more income for the UK’s leading public service broadcaster even for prized in-house IP like Doctor Who. In the past, conservatism often has led strategy.
The Disney+ deal, in particular, marked an important milestone for Fussell and Davie. Last year at Mipcom, the pair took to the stage to tell delegates BBC Studios was now a “fully global operation.” The company is seeking to double in size by 2027, and last year it posted record profits of £226M ($278.6M) on revenues of £1.6BN ($2BN).
“Tim took on his role in September 2020 and from Day 1 set out the strategy to grow commercial income – the BBC’s ‘Value for All’ strategy – and we own that as an executive,” said Fussell. “We are a BBC company with the BBC’s values at heart and a stamp of excellent of our programs, and we can use that to make money out of them. The BBC’s editorial standards are why people come to us globally.”
The surprise co-production agreement for Doctor Who with His Dark Materials maker Bad Wolf included the return of Russell T. Davies, the showrunner who famously rebooted the franchise back in 2005. Davies will oversee the upcoming 60th anniversary of the show and Sex Education‘s Ncuti Gatwa is the new Doctor.
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The intrigue deepened last year when Disney+ was unveiled as Doctor Who’s new international home. That agreement sees the show remain on the BBC network and iPlayer while moving to the Mouse House streamer internationally (excluding the UK and Ireland). The show had played on networks such as the ABC in Australia for decades (in the U.S. it had been on BBC America and HBO Max), but Fussell was clear about the commercial incentive for the new agreements. (He didn’t comment directly on the previous deals, but sources within the BBC say the company “hugely values” those relationships and “continues to work closely with them across a range of content.”).
Reports estimated BBC Studios could lose around £40M ($49.3M) in production fees due to the Bad Wolf co-production arrangement. Fussell — who took his role officially in October 2021 after an interim spell as BBC Studios CEO — said he saw “a lot of articles written at the time” about the Bad Wolf agreement and now offers a counter argument.
“I want to say both sides of the BBC are very happy. We have a brilliant showrunner in Russell T. Davies and a fantastic production partner in Bad Wolf, well known in scripted and in Hollywood,” he said. “The license fee payer still gets the show in the UK, it now has an enhanced budget and editorial value and BBC Studios is making a commercial reward. That ticks all the boxes.”
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In particular, the Disney+ deal provides “an excellent commercial outcome for the BBC and BBC Studios.” No financial information has been provided but reading between the lines, the distribution agreement should offset loses elsewhere. The show’s budget is believed to be increasing from around £3M ($3.7M) per episode to circa £10M ($12.3M), and Fussell claimed there has been “no fallout whatsoever” from staff at BBC Studios Drama Productions over Bad Wolf.
Overall, industry watchers we’ve spoken to have largely given the thumb’s up to the new arrangement. “It’s progressive and will hopefully give the show a genuine creative refresh,” said one former BBC exec. “I’m sure the finance is off the charts,” added another source.
A fully global BBC Studios
One senior source said BBC Studios’ approach to Doctor Who was representative of a broader BBC embracing a more commercial future. Fussell, who has been with the organization since 2016 when he joined as CFO, has indeed been encouraging his staff to find new business lines to exploit.
They are eyeing local and international production acquisitions and talent deals, considering local BBC-branded production hub launches and pushing for more lucrative international licensing agreements such as those struck for Doctor Who and Aussie-made kids hit Bluey, which goes out through Disney+ internationally but is also on the BBC in the UK and the ABC in Australia. More formats deals for the likes of Luther, Ghosts and Doctor Foster, along with unscripted hit Strictly Come Dancing (aka Dancing with the Stars) add another arrow to the quiver.
With expansion in mind, the BBC Studios’ borrowing limit was increased from £350M ($430M) to £750M (£925M) in 2021. “We haven’t taken our debt over £350M yet but we have plans in due course to do so,” said Fussell. “That will be on acquisitions and investment in all areas. The mandate we have is very clear – to grow for the long-term future of the BBC.”
BBC Studios has also been increasing its third-party commissions for the likes of Apple TV+, Warner Bros. Discovery and NBCUniversal. It is still relatively nascent in this space, having only had the government go-ahead to make shows for rivals since 2017. More recently, it has subsumed the BBC’s children’s TV production arm, which can also now make shows for third parties for the first time.
Internationally, Managing Director for Scripted Mark Linsey is moving from London to L.A. as part of a plan to boost ties with Hollywood. Former Fox television chairman Gary Newman has joined the Damon Buffini-led BBC Studios board and could similarly open doors.
BBC Studios will also continue buying stakes in independent producers, both in the UK and abroad, and is exploring the launch of BBC-branded bases in new territories. Last year, it invested in ex-Channel 4 content chief Kelly Webb-Lamb’s Mothership and Small Axe co-producer Turbine Studios among others. It also took full control of Killing Eve maker Sid Gentle Films, Firebird Pictures and unscripted company Voltage TV – a deal that marked the BBC’s first ever 100% acquisition. Talent deals were signed with the likes of My Octopus Teacher director James Reed.
BBC Studios Productions COO Martha Brass, a former Endemol Shine International boss, has been exploring options. “We’re doing our diligence,” said Fussell. “There are territories we’re having a look at, where we can grow but also be more successful running our own operations.”
“The main thing when we acquire is cultural fit,” he added. “I’ve learned that in other businesses I’ve been at and it’s a value I share with [BBC Studios Production CEO] Ralph Lee. When we understand the drive of the individuals who run the business and what value we can bring, then we look at a deal.”
Of course, these ambitious plans come at a tricky time. The BBC is under pressure to be both public service for the UK and commercially aggressive in a global market where streamers are tightening their belts and economies are shrinking. It’s no easy task but sources who know Fussell, a former Shine Group financial chief and commercial director for publishers Harper Collins UK and Random House, back his business acumen and relationships across the Corporation.
“His experience is more on the business than the creative side, but that might be exactly what BBC Studios needs right now – someone with a trusting relationship with BBC TV, in particular,” said one producer.
For Fussell the strategy is clear. “The key thing for us is the team across the board understands our commercial ambition,” he said. “We’re backed from the top by an extraordinary chairman in Damon Buffini and the board, and we’re uniquely placed to take advantage of that. There will no doubt be pressure on buying around the world, but we’ve already got a strong unscripted pipeline with documentaries and have a sweet spot in scripted.
“We don’t make $30M-40M an hour shows but ones that are smaller run, lower risk and uniquely British, like [upcoming HBO co-pro] Rain Dogs,” he added. “They drive new subscribers, so streamers want them around the world, and with a very good UK broadcaster and a tax credit attached, a lot of the budget is done before you start. That, and you get the BBC stamp of quality.”
BBC Studios’ ongoing regeneration makes for a fascinating story.
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