‘Doctor Who’ deal was ‘great commercial result’ – deadline
Doctor Whoits latest renewal represents “excellent commercial value,” according to BBC Studios boss Tom Fussell.
The CEO sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Deadline in mid-January, detailing the sensational deals his team struck with Bad Wolf and Disney+ that have reshaped the Doctor’s future ahead of the show’s 60th birthday. In short, they represent the future of a more aggressively commercial BBC Studios.
In 2021, BBC Studios announced that they would co-produce for the first time Doctor Who with Bad Wolf. On the distribution side, BBC Studios has since signed a landmark global streaming deal with Disney+, withdrawing from existing territory licensing deals in the process. The agreement is one of the largest entered into in the commercial outfit’s history.
Both partnerships highlight how BBC Studios led by Fussell and BBC Director General Tim Davie is unabashedly and aggressively focused on generating more revenue for the UK’s leading public service broadcaster even for priced in-house IP which Doctor Who. In the past, conservatism has often guided 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 that BBC Studios was now a “totally global operation”. The company is seeking to double in size by 2027 and last year had record profits of £226M ($278.6M) on revenues of £1.6BN ($2BN).
“Tim took on his role in September 2020 and from day 1 he set the strategy to grow commercial revenue – the BBC’s ‘Value for All’ strategy – and we own it as a leader,” Fussell said. “We are a BBC company with the BBC’s values at heart and a stamp of excellence on our programs and we can use that to make money from them. The BBC’s editorial standards are why people come to us globally.”
The surprising co-production agreement for Doctor Who with His dark materials Producer Bad Wolf included the return of Russell T. Davies, the showrunner who famously rebooted the franchise back in 2005. Davies will oversee the show’s upcoming 60th anniversary and Sex education‘s Ncuti Gatwa is the new doctor.
RELATED: ‘Doctor Who’ star Ncuti Gatwa hails show’s importance ‘For marginalized people’ who need to hear ‘The possibilities are endless’
The intrigue deepened last year when Disney+ was unveiled as Doctor Whoits new international home. This deal 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 been playing on networks like ABC in Australia for decades (in the US it had been on BBC America and HBO Max), but Fussell was clear about the commercial incentive for the new deals. (He did not comment directly on the previous deals, but BBC sources say the company “hugely values” these relationships and “continues to work closely with them across a range of content.”).
Reports estimate that BBC Studios could lose around £40 million ($49.3 million) in production fees due to the Bad Wolf co-production arrangement. Fussell – who officially took up his role in October 2021 after an interim stint as BBC Studios CEO – said he saw “a lot of articles written at the time” about the Bad Wolf deal and is now offering a counter-argument.
“I would 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 script and in Hollywood,” he said. “The license payer still gets the show in the UK , it now has an improved budget and editorial value, and BBC Studios provides a commercial reward. It ticks all the boxes.”
RELATED: BBC releases ‘Doctor Who’ teaser trailer featuring David Tennant, Catherine Tate and Ncuti Gatwa ahead of 2023 premiere
In particular, the Disney+ deal “delivers an excellent commercial result for the BBC and BBC Studios.” No financial information has been provided, but if you read between the lines, the distribution deal should offset losses elsewhere. The show’s budget is believed to increase from around £3 million ($3.7 million) per episode to around £10 million ($12.3 million), and Fussell claimed there has been “no fallout whatsoever” from staff at BBC Studios Drama Productions over Bad Wolf.
Overall, industry watchers we have spoken to have largely given the thumbs up to the new scheme. “It’s progressive and will hopefully give the show a genuine creative refresh,” said a former BBC boss. “I’m sure the finances are off the charts,” another source added.
A fully global BBC Studios
A senior source said BBC Studios’ approach to Doctor WHO was representative of a wider BBC that embraced a more commercial future. Fussell, who has been with the organization since 2016 when he joined as CFO, has actually encouraged his employees to find new lines of business to exploit.
They are looking at local and international production acquisitions and talent deals, considering the launch of local BBC-branded production hubs and pushing for more lucrative international licensing deals such as those made for Doctor Who and the Aussie team kids here Bluey, which goes out through Disney+ internationally, but is also on the BBC in the UK and the ABC in Australia. More format offers for the likes of Luther, Ghosts and Doctor Fosteralong with unscripted hits Strictly Come Dancing (aka Dancing with the stars) add one more arrow to the quiver.
With expansion in mind, BBC Studios’ borrowing limit was increased from £350M ($430M) to £750M (£925M) in 2021. “We haven’t raised our debt above £350M yet, but we have plans well in advance to do that, said Fussell. “It will be on acquisitions and investment across the board. The mandate we have is very clear – to grow for the long-term future of the BBC.”
BBC Studios has also increased its third-party commissions for the likes of Apple TV+, Warner Bros. Discovery and NBCUniversal. It is still relatively new in this area, having only had the government go-ahead to make shows for rivals since 2017. More recently, it has brought in the BBC’s children’s TV production arm, which can also now make shows for third parties for the first time.
Internationally, Scripted CEO Mark Linsey is relocating from London to LA as part of a plan to strengthen ties with Hollywood. Former Fox TV boss Gary Newman has joined the Damon Buffini-led BBC Studios board and could similarly open doors.
BBC Studios will also continue to buy 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 former Channel 4 chief content officer Kelly Webb-Lamb’s Mothership and Small Ax co-producer Turbine Studios among others. It also took full control To kill Eve producer Sid Gentle Films, Firebird Pictures and unscripted company Voltage TV – a deal that marked the BBC’s first ever 100% acquisition. Talent agreements were concluded 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 do our due diligence,” Fussell said. “There are territories we are looking at, where we can grow, but also succeed in running our own business.”
“The most important thing when we buy is cultural fit,” he added. “I’ve learned that in other businesses I’ve been in, and it’s a value I share [BBC Studios Production CEO] Ralph Lee. Once we understand the drive of the individuals running the business and what value we can add, then we look at a deal.”
Of course, these ambitious plans come at a difficult time. The BBC is under pressure to be both public service for Britain and commercially aggressive in a global market where streamers are tightening and economies are shrinking. It’s no easy task, but sources familiar with Fussell, a former finance chief at Shine Group and commercial director of publishers Harper Collins UK and Random House, back his business acumen and relationships across the company.
“His experience is more on the business side than the creative side, but that could 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 for us is that the team across the board understands our commercial ambition,” he said. “We are supported from the top by an extraordinary chairman in Damon Buffini and the board, and we are uniquely positioned to take advantage of that. There will no doubt be pressure to buy around the world, but we already have a strong unscripted pipeline of documentaries and have a good space in scripted.
“We don’t make $30-40 million an hour shows, but the ones that are smaller races, lower risk and uniquely British, like [upcoming HBO co-pro] Rain dogs,” he added. “They drive new subscribers, so streamers want them all over the world, and with a very good UK broadcaster and a tax credit, a lot of the budget is done before you start. That, and you get the BBC seal of quality.”
BBC Studios’ ongoing regeneration makes for a fascinating story.