INTERVIEW: The BBC

Ben Parfitt
INTERVIEW: The BBC

MCV unveiled BBC Worldwide’s plans to re-establish the broadcaster’s games interests last week. Here, Michael French speaks to the firm’s children’s and licensing head Neil Ross Russell and multimedia development head Dave Anderson to find out more…

It’s not often that companies in the games space get a second chance.

Individuals may regroup to form new companies, but usually if a publisher cocks it up and has to make a sharp exit, they are gone for good. The brand dies. Midway, Acclaim, Empire.

But the BBC, which famously ran a games publishing business for a decade until the CD-ROM market it was built on crashed and burned, isn’t like other companies when it comes to games.

Gatekeeper to a wealth of IP perfect for video games, the BBC may be different things to different people the world over, but for the games industry, it simply wants to be relevant again.

“There are two structural changes within the games industry that have made us refocus on this area,” explains Neil Ross Russell, head of children’s and licensing at BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC overseeing the bulk of the broadcaster’s push back into games.

“The first is the emergence of what we see as new gaming business models; the growth of the non-boxed product part of the industry, be that casual games, iPhone games, new social games. Anything where the type of user is different, the price point is lower and the volumes are higher.

"It’s a lot more relevant to the brands we have in our portfolio – brands like Antiques Roadshow, MasterChef, Top Gear and a lot of the quiz shows we have got. There are lots of opportunities to go through the back catalogue as well as do things with the jewels in our crown. We’re looking to see how they can be applied to those new and exciting areas.”

The second area, he says, is the clear fact that during this generation of consoles, video games have hit critical mass with consumers: “DS and Wii is relevant to our children’s brands. The size of the installed bases and the positioning of those platforms in particular suits us – the Wii is in the family living room and not the bedroom, and the DS is something that gets passed down to siblings and shared between family members.”

Because the BBC is funded by the public’s money via the licence fee, any money-making strategies are handled by the vast Worldwide operation, which creates a ‘church and state’ style relationship between the two. What that means is the BBC as most people see it remains a broadcaster of a diverse array of content, with some distance from its commercial cousin Worldwide, which also handles international distribution of that content overseas.

That also means not all of the output viewers love is immediately available as the BBC sometimes retains close control over the rights to some programmes. But Ross Russell and colleague Dave Anderson, head of multimedia development at BBC Worldwide, namecheck a range of properties which prove how committed this new games strategy is.

There are effectively three types of content that BBC Worldwide has up for grabs, they explain.

The first is the many children’s brands the BBC has broadcast and expanded. Historically, the firm’s youth output is iconic around the world – Teletubbies is the best example, right up to the latest big thing In The Night Garden. Other key brands include Charlie and Lola, 3rd & Bird, and new properties such as ZingZillas.

From BBC Worldwide’s point of view, that creates a rare opportunity for publishers targetting platforms like DS and Wii.

“Outside of Disney we have the best known line-up of children’s characters around the world – so this is a global conversation we’re willing to have. Perhaps more so for the children’s brands – I don’t really see A Question of Sport or Match of the Day being a global games brand… but Teletubbies, or Charlie and Lola, these are brands we have sold around the world already on TV and have big audiences. They are big, global opportunities.

“I am the least qualified to design a game, but it’s easy to see how you would translate Charlie and Lola into a video gaming environment. It’s no stretch of the imagination.”

Non-children’s brands make up the other two areas of BBC IP that is poised to leap into video games.

The first half are the aforementioned local brands dominated by UK personalities that are culturally specific and won’t exactly work well on a global stage. A Question of Sport, Match of the Day – EastEnders, even.

The other brands are of course the ‘box office draw’ that grabs most people’s attention when you say ‘games and the BBC’. Yes, that’s tentpole brands like Doctor Who and other dramas whose adventure qualities suit games well ­– but don’t forget Top Gear, Strictly Come Dancing, plus Planet Earth and other natural history shows, says Anderson.

Strictly has already made the jump to games with its American counterpart Dancing With the Stars turned into a game for the US by UK studio Zoe Mode under the watch of Activision. The tricky licensing web around the brand means it’s still viable for the UK – but Anderson says it’s a good example of the challenge BBC Worldwide faces when it comes to basing games on brands that have global appeal but are populated by local talent.

He explains: “The challenge is to make something that can be relevant to each territory but isn’t ruinously expensive.”

Doctor Who faces a similar challenge – it’s an iconic sci-fi series, but it’s most popular in the UK of course, plus Canada (which co-funds the latest series) and Australia, but not the USA.

Yet BBC Worldwide’s thinking is that while the children’s brands are a clear fit for console releases, the rest suit a different scale of games. A console shooter based on Torchwood isn’t necessarily a priority. Instead Anderson says platforms like iPhone and Android, plus the rise of Facebook and virtual worlds means the online arena is ideal for the BBC’s latest step into games given content can be produced quickly and cheaply.

“I still have nightmares about starting development on a project and then by the time it hit retail the show was no longer on TV,” says Anderson, referring back to the BBC’s previous games experiments.

“The TV is a tremendous strength – its our window on the brands. But this is about speed to market and the economics, because you have lower costs you can build UK-specific opportunities and commercial relationships with distributors, plus we can be the publisher. And there are real opportunities to see how we marry our content and interactive opportunities together.”

But expanding the BBC’s format-agnostic view of content to include games is probably a way off – for now, Worldwide wants to control the gaming destiny for brands that already exist.

“We’re a content business. But content is no longer simply pushed out by a broadcaster – interactive content is just as valid as TV,” says Ross Russell. “There are a number of our brands where we would much rather have creative control – so that the app or game is clearly still ‘BBC content’.”

It’s a far cry from 2005, when the BBC ditched its Multimedia division.

“We learnt some lessons before, but the business changed so dramatically that we would have had to seriously rethink our place in what the market used to be anyway,” says Anderson. Fact is, the traditional games market became so insular and publisher dominated towards the end of the last cycle that the BBC probably wouldn’t have fit in even as a company responsible for boxed product.

He adds: “Right now, it’s highly unlikely that we will re-enter the boxed product business. There is little case to be made for that. It makes sense to leave that for the consolidated part of the industry where there are less publishers but where there is scale for distribution that you can let someone else take care of. The nature and scale of our involvement over the next few years is really undecided, but what is interesting is that we are using different skill sets.”

He adds that the different licensing deals mean BBC Worldwide’s games activities will range from taking the role of a publisher closely controlling a title’s release, to straight up licensor.

“That means the opportunity to work on a case-by-case basis – if a creative company comes up with a great idea for our properties in interactive space, we will look at it in terms of direct licensing but also see how we can establish a different relationship.”

That might be hard to grasp for some of the global publishers, who are used to grabbing a timed, format-wide licensing deal for IPs. But it’s important for how the BBC wants to rebuild its place in the games industry, and build new relationships with games companies.

“This is not about opportunistic licensing,” says Anderson. “If we wanted to do that we would have done more with these key brands over the last few years. This is about going into the right place and trying to sustain it.”

Top Gear, for one, already has a mobile partner, he adds, while Doctor Who will inevitably be supported by a mix of games (see ‘What about Who?’).

It’s also about future-proofing the BBC’s place in games, adds Ross Russell.

“The boxed product games industry is going the way the movie industry goes – to persuade someone to pay full price you need to either have an incredible game backed with a big budget or something tied to a Hollywood,” he says.

“Do we have any properties we could convince people to pay £40 a pop on? We probably do. Are we prepared to put two or three years of development into that? Probably not. We’re realistic about the brands we have and where they fit.

“Our strategy reflects the fact we are TV not film. Film burns bright but burns quickly – people will talk about Avatar for weeks, but Match of the Day has been a fixed favourite for years.”

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