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Matt Forde looks to expand BBCS global production footprint

On the back of the international success of Ghosts and The 1% Club, Matt Forde of BBC Studios is using the strength of the company’s IP to expand his network of production companies around the globe.

Matt Forde

As MD of global productions and formats at BBC Studios (BBCS), Matt Forde oversees an international network of production bases exploiting some of the most successful IP and brands in the television industry.

His team is responsible for licensing hit formats such as Strictly Come Dancing (as Dancing With the Stars), now licensed in 61 territories, while The Great British Bake Off is rapidly nearing 40 local adaptations overseas. Working across the scripted space, Forde has been proud to see BBC One’s supernatural sitcom Ghosts re-imagined for the US market on CBS through a production partnership with Lionsgate.

Gritty crime drama Luther, meanwhile, was adapted for Indian streamer Disney+ Hotstar by prodco Applause Entertainment as Rudra: The Edge of Darkness. Starring Ajay Devgn in the troubled detective role originally made famous by Idris Elba, it was the biggest Hindi drama of 2022, says Forde.

With BBC Studios posting revenues of £1.6bn (US$1.97bn) in 2021/22, it’s quite a figure for a company which has only existed in its present form since 2018. It was then that the BBC’s in-house production arm was merged with distributor BBC Worldwide to create a content company with 360-degree vision and ambition.

“As an international production outfit, BBC Studios is still a relatively young business,” says Forde. “But key to my work, which I find a lot of fun, has been building a global creative network. It’s how we move IP around the world within that international framework, regardless of where the content originated and which territory it might be adapted for.

“BBCS is organised in a way that we are across all genres with an equal amount of focus. We’ve had a good couple of years building up both unscripted and scripted formats and originals.

“So titles such as Doctor Foster, Luther and Dancing With the Stars have performed well for us, while the show that’s really broken through for us of late is gameshow The 1% Club, made by Magnum Media for ITV. Shooting has just wrapped for local adaptations in Germany and Australia.”

The gradual global roll-out of The 1% Club – with further licensing deals confirmed for Gallic pubcaster France 2, Dutch cable channel RTL4, Antena 3 in Spain and Israel’s Kan 11 – proves the UK is still a leading incubator of unscripted formats, says Forde.

The 1% Club made its debut on ITV

Recent years have seen other territories muscle in on this lucrative market – notably, South Korea with the all-conquering The Masked Singer brand, plus Israel with formats from the likes of Keshet International and Armoza Formats.

Despite tough competition, Forde believes the UK is more than holding its own. “Creatively, we are in pretty good shape with formats here in Britain,” he says. “Ant & Dec’s Limitless Win and The 1% Club are great shows, while you could argue that Traitors – though originally a Dutch format – was really elevated to another level by the UK version.

“Perhaps UK formats don’t tumble off the production line like they used to with the likes of The X Factor, The Weakest Link, Pop Idol and MasterChef, but that gold rush was partly the result of a big writers’ strike during that period.”

Interestingly, this could be a pattern that may well repeat itself in 2023. The Writers Guild of America is preparing for negotiations with US studios, networks and streamers over their current contract, which expires on May 1 this year.

Key issues such as minimum pay and streaming residuals are due to be discussed. If US-based writers down tools, does Forde see opportunities to place more format-based unscripted content with US buyers suddenly starved of scripted programming?

“BBCS has deep partnerships with US companies such as Disney, NBC and Fox, so we could help them through a period such as that with some unscripted content,” he says.

“Writers’ strikes are never good news for anyone, but the reasons for it potentially happening are rational and I understand why the writers want answers to the questions they’re asking.”

Upcoming BBC Studios format Ultimate Wedding Planner

With economists predicting recession in many parts of the world this year, plus soaring production costs and consolidation in the streamer market after years of lavish overspending, 2023 also looks set to be a year where TV content buyers are tightening their belts.

Recent analysis indicates that scripted commissions in the US alone dipped by a substantial 40% between the final two semesters of 2022.

While that may be bad news on the face of it, makers of unscripted programming could benefit as buyers worldwide seek to fill their libraries with cheaper alternatives to costly premium drama.

“Yes, we’re certainly getting those phone calls,” says Forde. “BBC Studios has been receiving orders for longer-run formats or unscripted content with more episodes – that’s not uncommon when there’s an economic pinch or a looming writers’ strike on the scripted side. So it’s an interesting time to be in unscripted.

“The economic headwinds are more prevalent in the US, and the UK economy is not in great shape either. Having said that, there are still a lot of opportunities for us in the next year all over the world.”

Indeed, although BBCS provides a vital pipeline of content for the mothership pubcaster in the UK, a whopping 75% of BBCS revenue comes from partnerships with blue-chip global partners such as Amazon Prime, AMC Networks, Apple, Disney+, France Télévisions, Nine Network in Australia and Germany’s ZDF.

Key to that overseas outreach is an expansive network of production bases in the US, India, Australia, France, Germany, South Africa and the Nordics. BBCS has invested in foreign prodcos, including tapping the African market by investing in formats house Rapid Blue, which has offices in Angola, Nigeria and South Africa. That’s in addition to the many domestic labels in which BBCS has minority and majority stakes, such as Baby Cow, Lookout Point TV, Moonage Pictures, Mothership Productions and – announced at Content London last December – Turbine Studios.

With all those studios contributing to the 2,500 hours of content produced every year to sell to major local networks and streaming platforms, does BBCS plan to expand its international footprint yet further?

Breaking Point was adapted in Germany by RTL as Jetzt knallt’s

“There is real potential for us to produce content in more territories,” says Forde. “We’re looking at what more we could be doing in the Nordics and Benelux, while there’s a lot of Spanish-speaking countries that we could take our IP to for development. That’s one of the reasons we brought in Isabel Duran as our format sales director for Iberia and Latin America last year.

“We’ve had a bit of a hiatus in terms of investing in overseas studios since Rapid Blue in 2016, but we are now looking at the potential to grow the business again. There’s also no reason why we can’t set up more production bases internationally as well.”

Recent hit factual exports for BBCS include true crime series Murder Amongst the Mormons, carried by Netflix, and Life Below Zero, a factual series about Alaskan subsistence hunters for National Geographic.

At the BBC Studios Showcase, taking place in London next week, the company will create bespoke events to preview two new formats: gameshow Breaking Point and Ultimate Wedding Planner.

“It shows that formats continue to be important and relevant,” says Forde. “Breaking Point is a fun Saturday night entertainment show developed in the UK and sold to RTL in Germany. Ultimate Wedding Planner sees teams compete to deliver a couple’s special day to budget, made with Hannah Wyatt, BBCS’s genre director of factual entertainment, and her team.

“BBC Studios Showcase is always compelling and fun. It’s two days in the year that bring together all the people that work in our offices worldwide. Relationships are more important than ever so it’s great to spend time with each other face-to-face.”