Big in Brazil: how British TV became export gold

The British reality programme Naked Attraction airs on French TV – but there is a twist. The gameshow, in which contestants pick dates based on whether they like the look of their genitals, is censored. Breasts are acceptable, but nether regions are not. In a move that contradicts the show’s title, they are hidden from viewers by emojis of fruit.

“France is scared of nudity,” says Justine Soula, 23, a fan from Toulouse. “We watch violent TV shows, but bodies are still taboo. UK shows are more daring.”

Wherever you are in the world, the chances are that UK shows are close by. Naked Attraction is watched in 22 countries. Recent hits such as Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You and Russell T Davies’s Aids crisis drama It’s a Sin are steadily making their way across the globe. Cash Carraway and Wahala, two of the blockbuster commissions announced by the BBC in May, were picked up by the corporation’s commercial division, BBC Studios, with international sales in mind.

British TV is now so ubiquitous outside the UK that there are worries about its impact on other countries’ TV industries. An internal EU document, seen by the Guardian in June, revealed that the amount of British TV aired in Europe is considered by some to be a threat to “cultural diversity” in the bloc. The EU has rules about the amount of European content that should be shown in member countries: no less than 30% on streaming platforms and a majority on terrestrial services. The document argued that a “disproportionate” amount of British TV is being aired and that it is hindering the success of shows from smaller countries or in less prevalent languages. The EU is preparing to step in to address this.

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It’s a Sin
Expanding markets and minds … It’s a Sin has been sold to countries that would not previously have bought a drama about the Aids crisis. Photograph: Channel 4

But how has Britain done so well in the ultra-competitive TV ecosystem? Is it just a language thing? Is it because our shows are very respected? The truth is a complicated mix of both, but it is also because we are getting smarter at selling.

A study by the trade body Pact revealed a 6% rise in global sales of British shows last year, to £1.5bn, including sales of shows and international co-productions. In January, ITV Studios sold 400 hours of drama – including steamy period numbers Victoria and Poldark, plus the Malorie Blackman adaptation Noughts + Crosses – to Globoplay’s new streaming service in Brazil. As the number of platforms increase, British content can be found on everything from Amazon Prime Video and Netflix to local services such as Bilibili in China.

Louise Pedersen, the CEO of international business at the production and distribution company All3Media, says that the move away from selling to cautious state broadcasters in favour of local streaming services has meant edgier content can travel further. Her team sold It’s a Sin, which aired on Channel 4 in the UK, to companies in countries including Russia, Poland and South Korea, where previously it would never have aired. They were also able to export Fleabag to China, despite the show including swearing and sex that wouldn’t usually get past the tight censors. (Broadchurch didn’t make the cut, because it showed the death of a child.)

Cathy Payne, the CEO of Banijay Rights, a distributor, says acquisitions teams used to lean towards bucolic, fluffy British productions, whereas now they like the weirder, more challenging stuff, too. “The year everyone wanted Happy Valley was the breakthrough,” she says. Previously, she had struggled to sell Black Mirror (too risky) and Peaky Blinders (too many accents).

The success of British exports is as much down to the structure of the industry as it is to the quality of the shows. The fact we make lots of shorter series, rather than fewer long-running ones, means that we simply have more television. Meanwhile, the Communications Act 2003 gave independent producers control of the rights of their work, rather than the broadcasters that air them; this means they can sell their shows internationally themselves. Export profits have increased every year since.

The UK TV industry is now so reliant on exports and deals that it would seemingly crumble without them. Viewers have become accustomed to cinematic quality that neither UK channels nor independent producers would be able to afford without global income (I May Destroy You, for example, was made in partnership with HBO in the US). In an effort to keep up, the BBC has tripled the amount of third-party investment it uses to make drama. ITV and the BBC also use their commercial divisions to produce and distribute shows to international buyers, pumping the money they make back into local services.

Linsey says it is a system that works – the BBC delivers £1.47 of screen value for every £1 the taxpayer spends – but there is concern that supplying content to global streaming services can strengthen the competition. “BBC Three gave Phoebe Waller-Bridge the opportunity to do Fleabag,” he says. “But they couldn’t compete with Amazon to take her exclusively.” Her deal with the streaming service is worth $20m (£14.5m) a year.

Kamal Hadley (Paterson Joseph), Sephy Hadley (Masali Baduza) and Lekan Baako (Jonathan Ajayi) in Noughts + Crosses.
Kamal Hadley (Paterson Joseph), Sephy Hadley (Masali Baduza) and Lekan Baako (Jonathan Ajayi) in Noughts + Crosses. Photograph: Ilze Kitshoff/BBC/Mammoth Screen

At first glance, our reliance on this income might make it seem as if the threat of EU regulation of British TV could be a sign that we are heading for choppy waters. But Max Rumney, the director of business affairs at Pact, disagrees. “People will watch what they find compelling and entertaining and will find ways of doing that,” he says. “We see that with younger audiences particularly – and legislating to exclude certain types of content and programmes is not really [the way to] deal with audience engagement.”

In fact, the future for UK TV exports looks positive, in spite of these EU conversations and the lingering impact of the pandemic. With TV shoots around the world postponed due to Covid, broadcasters have continued to stockpile older British shows to plug scheduling gaps. Escape to the Country does well in Canada and MasterChef has gained audiences around the world. The gardener Monty Don is big in Russia. “His passion is infectious,” says Oksana Ivannikova, a 30-year-old from Stavropol Krai in south-west Russia. She has watched three of his series since the start of last year. Distributors also say that British favourites such as Silent Witness, Spooks and Hustle found new audiences in lockdown. In the US, The Weakest Link has had a renaissance due to its quick-turnaround, social-distancing-friendly format. “People have looked for warm counterpoints to the grim things that we’ve seen,” says Pedersen.

This is clear when you speak to viewers, too. Don Hamel, a 57-year-old from Quebec, says that in lockdown he “craved an escape” and fell down a rabbit hole of British panel shows such as Would I Lie to You? and The Big Fat Quiz of the Year. “I would watch Noel Fielding and Richard Ayoade pick up dry cleaning,” he says. At a time when Britain has felt cut off from much of the world, our culture has seemingly connected with people on a deep level. “We all have the same common interests,” says Ivannikova. “Not even politics interferes with cultural exchange.” That said, one thing confuses Hamel: “Is major personal trauma a requirement for British detectives? They all seem terribly troubled on TV.”


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