First BBC Series Are Put Out for Competitive Bid in Production Shakeup

Robert Mitchell

Three of the BBC’s longest-running shows will be the first returning series put out for competitive bids as part of a plan to shake up the public broadcaster’s production system and open up more commissions to independent suppliers.

Medical drama “Holby City,” quiz show “A Question of Sport” and religious program “Songs of Praise” are among the first series to fall under the BBC’s “Compete or Compare” strategy, which was launched by BBC Director-General Tony Hall in 2014. The initiative calls for the BBC to remove its in-house guarantee this month and begin the competitive tender of returning series currently produced by BBC Studios.

Independent producers will be invited to pitch for the shows alongside BBC Studios. The broadcaster retains all intellectual property rights to programs put out to bid, and they will continue to be broadcast on BBC channels.

Tuesday’s announcement marks a significant moment as the BBC makes parts of its schedule available to other producers for the first time, said Tim Westcott, senior principal analyst of TV programming at IHS Markit.

“There’s quite a bit at stake as the BBC doesn’t necessarily want to end up with a big percentage of its schedule being made out of house,” Westcott said, adding: “It’s a good initial offering which goes across factual and scripted genres, and is prime BBC real estate.”

The BBC’s announcement came just a week after it lost one of its most popular programs, “The Great British Bake Off,” which is produced by independent production company Love Productions, to rival network Channel 4.

In 2015, the BBC and the British producers’ association signed an agreement to lay out a framework to strengthen the U.K. television production sector. The agreement called on the BBC to give up 40% of its existing in-house guarantees in BBC Studios’ genres to independent competitors within two years.

Last week, the British government went further, releasing a new draft charter for the BBC that obliges the pubcaster to achieve 100% competition (excluding news and news-related current-affairs programming) by the end of the next charter period, which runs 11 years. This would provide new opportunities for independent producers to supply programming across the BBC’s drama, comedy, entertainment and factual slates.

But BBC Studios could also benefit, because “the government agreed that BBC Studios will be a fully commercial operation able to make programs for anyone and subject to the same rules as any commercial independent program maker,” said Bal Samra, commercial director of the BBC and managing director of BBC Television.

“I believe the U.K.’s creative sector is the best in the world. The imagination, storytelling, insight, experience, craft expertise, and passion for quality is second to none,” Samra said. “It is a big, bold move, but I think what we’re doing in generating this competition, with a strong independent sector and the creation of BBC Studios, could make our industry even stronger.”

BBC shows are being put out for bid in batches to allow independent producers time to prepare pitches. The first batch comprises some of the BBC’s longest-running shows. “Songs of Praise” has been on air for 55 years since it was first broadcast in 1961; “A Question of Sport,” which tests the sporting knowledge of celebrities from the world of sport, has been on air since 1968. “Holby City,” set in the same hospital as BBC staple “Casualty,” was first broadcast in January 1999. The three were chosen as the first ones for competitive bid because they were all approaching re-commissioning deadlines.

Independent suppliers will also be invited to pitch ideas for individual editions of “Horizon,” the BBC’s documentary series, which was first broadcast in 1964.

Westcott said the choice of the long-running shows might discourage some independent producers.

“These shows are a familiar part of the schedule, well-established and very much identified with the BBC, with loyal, built-in audiences,” Westcott said. “I’m not sure how much scope there will be to revamp or to make an impression on them for independent producers. I would think independent producers would be more interested in pitching for a new flagship entertainment show or prime-time drama where they have the opportunity to create something from scratch.”

Further titles will be announced for future tenders in 2017.

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