BBC Worldwide’s senior VP of programming and TV channels David Weiland unveils plans for Lonely Planet programming blocks and hints that new networks could carry the brand. Clive Whittingham reports.While all attention in the UK is focused on the BBC’s Delivering Quality First strategy and associated budget cuts, its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide (BBCWW), is launching Lonely Planet programming blocks and plotting channel launches.
BBCWW’s acquisition of Australia-based travel franchise Lonely Planet was a controversial one. In 2007, it took a majority stake for £89m (US$142.4m) and then paid £42m for the rest of the company in February 2011. The company turned Lonely Planet’s £3.2m loss in 2008/09 into a £1.9m profit for 2009/10 by focusing on digital publishing, but critics said it was stretching its remit and distorting the market by making such a commercial move. The BBC Trust approved the takeover but later banned BBCWW from making similar investments in future – unless there are what the Trust called “exceptional circumstances.”
The public service broadcasting benefits of the deal, however, may soon become apparent. At the beginning of November 2011, BBCWW started rolling out Lonely Planet branded programming blocks on BBC Knowledge, which airs across Asia, Europe, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa.
For BBCWW’s senior VP of programming and TV channels David Weiland, the union between Lonely Planet and BBC Knowledge was a “match made in heaven.”
“BBC Knowledge wanted to move more into travel and adventure,” he says. “Lonely Planet sits within that, so we combined the brands.” Some territories, such as Australia and New Zealand, air three-hour blocks one night a week while others have fewer.
But there’s more to come. BBC Knowledge previously launched blocks of this type from natural history strand BBC Earth and BBCWW is looking at turning the BBC Earth and Lonely Planet brands into channels in their own right. “We’re testing the water,” Weiland says. “We would need to ramp up the level of content to be able to go to a full channel but we certainly look at this as quite an interesting model.
“We’re trying it with BBC Earth – a block on BBC Knowledge with a view to possibly launching a channel. We’re in active discussions with a number of people around the world about it but there is nothing definite yet.”In the meantime, the Lonely Planet blocks comprise a mixture of commissioned and acquired content from the UK and elsewhere. The blocks launched with Free Rein, a one-off travelogue from BBCWW-backed Aussie prodco Freehand Films about actors Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward, who travel on horseback across the Outback. There are also programmes from Lonely Planet’s own production arm, such as Roads Less Travelled, where LP journalists go off the beaten track to find the world’s hidden tourist gems. BBC Bristol also produced a five-part series for the strand with presenter Ben Fogle called Year of Adventures, based on the Lonely Planet book of the same name.
According to Weiland, enthusiastic experts like Fogle will be the key to Lonely Planet on-screen. “Certainly, there is no doubt that presenter-less versions of programmes are easier to place and sell with foreign broadcasters,” admits Weiland. “But for pay-TV and for BBC-branded channels, we’re all about characters. We operate mainly in English-speaking markets. Presenters only become slightly more difficult and complicated when you are dubbing.” Programmes like Long Way Round with Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman and Amazon with Bruce Parry also air in the LP blocks.
This strategy would seem to set the BBC along the same path as Discovery Channel, which is also looking for believable experts to front shows. BBCWW partnered with Discovery to run Animal Planet until recently, but are they now competing?
“The Discovery relationship is still very strong, and there is still a coproduction agreement between Discovery in the US and the BBC,” says Weiland. “In some areas, we are in the same space, but there is quite a clear distinction – Discovery content is very American and is tending to go more towards reality and entertainment. BBC Knowledge is much more British and our heart is still more traditionally factual and factual entertainment. The platforms and the viewers do not see us as replacing each other, they see us as complementary.”
Commissioning briefs have been sent out to prodcos, and Weiland says BBCWW prefers this targeted approach because of the resources available to it. “Our commissioning strategy is very much focused on filling in gaps,” he says. It doesn’t look like Lonely Planet will merely be filling a gap on Knowledge for long though.