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Interview: BBC Studios director Mark Linsey

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23 March 2017

The director of BBC Studios, Mark Linsey, sets out his stall as the corporation’s production arm prepares to launch into the market next month. Tim Dams listens to his pitch

It doesn’t take long in the company of Mark Linsey to work out how the boss of BBC Studios is positioning the corporation’s production arm when it launches into the market next month.

The word ‘creativity’ pops up in conversation dozens of times. The new structure of BBC Studios is ‘all about driving the creativity’ and ‘empowering creativity’ within the organisation. The inhouse production team is looking forward to ‘taking its creativity’ to other broadcasters. Rival indies, he says, will appreciate the BBC’s ‘commitment to creativity’. Just in case the focus is not clear, he adds that success will come if ‘our creativity is as high as it is now.’

The launch of BBC Studios as a fully commercial operation on April 1 looks set to be a pivotal moment in the short history of the UK production sector.

For the first time, the BBC’s inhouse production arm will be able to go out and pitch for business from rival broadcasters. At the same time, the corporation has scrapped the guarantee that 50% of all BBC programmes are made inhouse – meaning that nearly all BBC commissions will be up for competition.

Linsey, who began his career in the indie sector before rising to BBC controller of entertainment commissioning and then acting director of TV, took over the BBC Studios project in March 2016 in the wake of Peter Salmon’s abrupt departure for Endemol Shine.

Since then, Linsey has steered BBC Studios through a complex regulatory approval process, which culminated with BBC Trust approval in December. He has also restructured BBC Studios, creating three genre divisions – scripted, factual and entertainment run by three execs with business and commercial backgrounds: Nick Betts, Lisa Opie and Roger Leatham (see box on next page). Linsey has also cut some 300 jobs at BBC Studios. At launch, total staff numbers will be around 1600, a mixture of continuing and fixed term contracts.

Linsey says he sought to make the leadership of BBC Studios as flat as possible. “I wanted to get rid of as many editorial and management layers as I could, so I brought in three leaders who are known for their operational and business nous.” Their role, he explains, is to empower the creative heads underneath them to do their best work. The factual department, for example, has six individual units within it – from Science, headed by Andrew Cohen, to Unscripted Productions, the new home of popular factual shows such as Countryfile and Antiques Roadshow, run by Jon Swain.

Each unit will have their own development teams. “We want to invest in their creative ambitions,” says Linsey.

Citing BBC Studios’ shows such as Strictly Come Dancing, Planet Earth II to Mrs Brown’s Boys, Linsey stresses the range of its programming. “It all does point to us being the best programme makers in the world, quite simply. When you look at the range and creativity, it is quite unique.”

This breadth of BBC Studios programming is undisputed, as is its geographical spread with bases in cities such as Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Salford and Glasgow. Linsey says this “commitment to having meaningful production bases right across the UK” is another real strength of BBC Studios in its pitch to broadcasters, allowing it to “make programmes that reflect the UK.”

But its ability to win commissions in the face of indie competition is less sure. BBC Studios always came off worse when directly competing with indies under the Window of Creative Competition (WoCC) that set aside a 25% share of BBC commissions to be contested in the open market. 

“We have to be more competitive. We recognise that,” says Linsey. The way to do that, he says, is to be “as focussed as we can on our creativity.” Indeed, the restructure, he says, has been about making BBC Studios more competitive. “We need to have the flexibility in our operating model, and to employ people in the way our competitors do. We need to make sure we are being efficient so we can focus as much of our spend as possible on creativity and programmes.”

But will top creatives need better incentives to work at BBC Studios, when greater riches may be available in the indie sector? Linsey replies that part of the pitch to creatives to work for BBC Studios is the range of opportunities it offers to them. “If it is in drama, you can be writing a script that is Doctor Who-like and that has commercial and reputational ambition. Or it could be a two-parter which has reputational capabilities, such as To Walk Invisible.” BBC Studios, he adds, will continue to produce “reputational one-offs”, which are eschewed by some indies in favour of the commercial holy grail of a returning series.

Is this sustainable though? “Yes, I believe it is – if we can make ourselves as efficient as possible. We can use the more commercial aspects of our business to support the less commercial.”

He adds that BBC Studios will also look to the indie sector to mirror their reward structures. “Obviously if we are going to operate competitively in the marketplace, we need to be able to offer the sort of incentives that already exist in the market place. So we will be working really hard to make sure that we can reward people appropriately.”

Linsey says he has already begun having “high level conversations” with other broadcasters in the UK about the BBC Studios offer. (No detailed pitches are allowed until April).

The feedback he has had is encouraging. “What appeals to them, and why they are saying the door is open, is they look at the shows we produce…and they know we can deliver quality and know we can deliver value. Because that is something we are used to doing for licence fee payers.”

And he believes the opportunities for BBC Studios are significant. Domestically, he says the BBC is “without doubt our main customer, that is where our focus will be. But we will be – we are – talking to other domestic broadcasters.”

In the US market, he points out that the BBC has long made programmes with PBS and Discovery, so “we have good relationships globally already.” He also cites the opportunities from SVoD players, noting that that BBC Studios is working on the Amazon and BBC commissioned adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.

Yet Linsey is also acutely conscious of the challenges that BBC Studios faces in its launch year. “While we are a well established producer…we are going into a different market that is highly competitive. And there will be adjustments for us to make sure we are at our competitive best. So we need time to develop and mature in the marketplace.”

The BBC Trust has already acknowledged the challenges facing BBC Studios. When it gave its approval to BBC Studios, the Trust pointed to research from consultants OC&C which concluded that BBC Studios would lose share of UK commissioning spend to 2020 – and that its total share of commissioning spend would not exceed 13% of the market. OC&C said it believed only a ‘conservative number of programmes’ would be produced for other broadcasters and that this, together with the move to contestable BBC commissioning, would initially result in a falling share for BBC Studios.

Even so, many in the indie production community have voiced concern that BBC commissioners will favour their BBC colleagues. BBC Studios, after all, won the first open tender for Question of Sport. It lost the second, Songs of Praise, but won the important tender for Holby City. Linsey plays down the fears: “We are not going to win all the tenders. The process sits with commissioning. It is very fair – it has to be in everyone’s interest that there is a level playing field for studios as much as indies for content.”

Indeed, Linsey is clearly aware that the launch period for BBC will come with myriad challenges as well as opportunity. Asked if BBC Studios’ reported £400m turnover will rise or fall as it moves to a commercial footing, he says: “My expectations are pretty realistic. I think it will be hard to…you haven’t got the 50% guarantee anymore, there is uncertainty of revenue around that, and you have the backdrop of tendering, that adds to the uncertainty. I think that £400m figure is based on the 50% guarantee. We have to manage expectations around that figure.”

Linsey concludes: “I think it is going to take us a while before we bed in as a business. We have to allow and expect that. For me the real success will be if our creativity is as high as it is now. I believe if your creativity is strong, then success will follow.”

INDIES ON BBC STUDIOS
Most indies believe the launch of BBC Studios should be positive for business because of the removal of the 50% inhouse guarantee that BBC Studios enjoyed. 

“I don’t think anyone sees this as a bad thing. It has opened up the BBC to independents,” says All3Media COO Sara Geater, who is also the chair of Pact.

She warns that the indie sector will have to keep an eye on the relationship between a commercial BBC Studios and its public service parent. Specifically, she flags up the need to be ‘careful’ about the BBC or BBC Worldwide cross subsidising the Studios arm. She also says the BBC has to ensure indies have a level playing field when competing for commissions, and that pricing is fair and transparent.

Most indies assume BBC Studios stands to lose more than it will gain from 1 April. “It’s a tough ask for the BBC,” says Mentorn and Pioneer chief executive Jonathan Hewes. “Refocusing from one broadcaster to producing for anyone who will give you money requires a very different skillset.”

THE STRUCTURE OF BBC STUDIOS
There are three key production divisions in BBC Studios: Factual; Scripted; and Entertainment, Music and Events. Around 1600 staff work at BBC Studios, which has a turnover of £400m.

1. Scripted
Director Nick Betts
There are three units within Scripted, each with their own focus:

Drama
Doctor Who, Silent Witness, War & Peace, 
Rillington Place, Our Girl, Father Brown, Luther, Thirteen
Continuing Drama
EastEnders, Casualty, Holby City, Doctors,  River City and Pobol y Cwm
Comedy
Mrs Brown’s Boys, Tracey Ullman’s Show, Jonathan Creek, Two Doors Down, Josh, Inside No.9, Citizen Khan, Only Fools and Horses, Miranda, The Office, The Thick Of It

2. Factual
Director Lisa Opie
There are six units within Factual, based around the UK:

Natural History Unit (Bristol)
Planet Earth II, Life in the Snow, Springwatch, Natural World, Big Blue Live, Elephant Family and Me
Science Unit (London/Glasgow)
Forces of Nature with Brian Cox, Horizon, Stargazing Live, Trust Me I’m A Doctor, 
What’s the Right Diet For You
Documentary Unit (London)
Murdered By My Father, The Met: Policing 
London, The Secret History of My Family, 
Our World War, Britain’s Forgotten Slave 
Owners, Louis Theroux: Savile and Life 
and Death Row
Unscripted Productions (Bristol/Cardiff/Belfast)
Countryfile, Antiques Roadshow, DIY SOS, Simply Nigella, Gardener’s World and Bargain Hunt
Topical and Live  (London/Salford)
The One Show, Watchdog, Rip Off Britain, Arctic Live, Building Cars Live, Volcano Live and The World’s Busiest Cities
Pacific Quay Productions (Glasgow)
Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets Of Orkney, Countryside 999, This Farming Life and Imagine

3. Entertainment, 
Music and Events
Director Roger Leatham
The exact stucture of this wide-ranging department is yet to be announced. Its shows span entertainment, factual entertainment formats, music programming and national events coverage.
Strictly Come Dancing, Let It Shine, Question of Sport, Dragon’s Den, Children in Need, Sport Relief, Later with Jools Holland, Glastonbury, 
The Proms, New Year Celebrations and Remembrance Weekend




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