For Rupert Gavin, BBC Worldwide's chief executive, a trip to India seems linked to announcing a new programming initiative with Star India.
Last year he was in Mumbai in the middle of October to announce a licencing agreement with Star for the popular British television serials Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister for broadcast in Hindi as Ji Mantriji and Ji Pradhanmantriji respectively. Ji Mantriji is currently running on Star but Ji Pradhanmantriji seems to have gone into permanent cold storage.
This time round (25 October to be exact) it was to announce The Weakest Link, the biggest programming hit to come out of the BBC Worldwide stables in the last decade.
The largest non-US, English language television programme producer and exporter in the world (2000-01 programme sales increased from £138m to £150m), BBC Worldwide is still in the build phase as far as India is concerned, Gavin says. It is building the brand, building its presence so that it will be in a position to make investments. Once that happens, maybe India will contribute more than the 2 per cent it currently does to BBC Worldwide's sales.
In an interview with indiantelevision.com's Thomas Abraham, Gavin outlined BBC Worldwide's plans in the changed scenario post-11 September. Post September 11, has there has been any particular change in strategy, how has the business model changed?
Since then, a lot has changed. Obviously our news programming, our news channels, have gained a lot. The world market has opened for documentaries. See, we probably have some of the best documentaries on Bin Laden, Al Qaida (the chief suspects in the attacks on the World Trade Centre). Nobody wanted them eight weeks ago. Now suddenly people who were not aware of these guys' movements are showing interest in buying these documentaries.
We are also aware of a shift in demand to a slightly more serious, more factual programming ethos. I think people's attitude to life, certainly in the West, has changed. Is there a transformation in people's demands, are they more interested in trying to figure out what is happening outside America?
Big transformation. We have a lot of demand because a lot of the American papers have been writing that America's television news has become exclusively domestic. And certainly people are turning to the BBC as being a source of global perspective on world events. They are sad events no doubt but they have had a very significant and positive impact on us.
Obviously, the advertising market has been precarious. But the advertising market has been precarious all the way round the world. And that has an effect on us. But we will have to see how that shapes through.
'We are interested in bringing in more BBC channels, or channels in partnership with other people'
As a long term effect?
Whether it is a long term downturn or whether it is just a cycle.What do you propose in India? Last year, there were a lot of things happening. There was also talk that you were in discussions with the Indian government regarding investment plans in broadcasting. What came of that?
We are still in discussions. It has been very a turbulent market and some of the changes that were going to take place did not. DTH, things like that, due to tight government restrictions. We are interested in the investment market in India. But things will have to move a little faster.What projects are you looking at other than these?
We are interested in bringing in more BBC channels, or channels in partnership with other people. We are also interested in the radio market.
We are also expanding our publishing operations. At the moment, our publishing is gaining partnership with Penguin and the Noddies with Egmont.
From our perspective, and the traditional way that we work, is to expand by way of working with existing players on a licensed basis.
When we build on a sufficient scale in the market, we will start investing as well in infrastructure.
That is the programme of activity - we are in the build phase, which is why we are doing things with Star. Which is where Teletubbies and Noddy come in, as well as Ji Mantriji, the books with Penguin. We are actually building the brand, building our presence and that will help us to be in a position to make investments.Any concrete investment plans?
Bring in channel operations. We are also looking at the possibilities of Radio, and publishing, maybe even magazines.
These will be BBC publications printed in India for sale in India?
Yes.As far as radio is concerned, do you have that kind of cachet in India? I think radio as a medium seems to have lost out.
We are primarily on short wave, with a certain amount of FM redistribution. But that's all. We have got to get to a stage where it is accepted that BBC news can be broadcast on domestic channels.Basically FM? Is that what you are looking at?
'We have got to get to a stage where it is accepted that BBC news can be broadcast on domestic channels'
But you say you have a small band on FM. Could you elaborate on that?
I think we must be having. It's not my particular area but we do have a range of partnerships for FM redistribution around the world. Or, a lot of people are listening to us on the Internet. But obviously for India, the bulk of our dependence is on short wave.
Talking about your short wave listenership, have you tracked that in any way? Has it gone down?
It has remained pretty steady, actually. It's surprising that. It's not increasing but it's stable.
It's around 30 million. It's very substantial considering that our total weekly listenership to the (BBC) World Service around the world is around 153 million.What do you think about broadband, the Internet? Even in the West, it has not taken off, leave aside India.
We are the biggest Internet content provider outside America. We just keep pumping out internet content. We use more video content than any other internet provider in the world. And that's part of the service we provide.
As people's connections get faster and faster, their appreciation of our service also gets better. But we've always been ahead of the curve. That's why we have all of our radio channels on the Internet. That's why we have all of our news bulletins, a lot of our video archives on the Internet. We have more video and audio on the Internet than any other media company in the world.
What about the revenue model? That's the question any Net-based venture confronts today.
The majority of is publicly funded. That is our unique difference. We are able to do that because of public funding.
What about BBC's current investments in India, is it increasing... decreasing?
Increasing. I can't give you any figures though.
What about worldwide sales figures; what is coming out of Asia and how much is the contribution of India in percentages?
It's modest. Of our total worldwide sales it's about two per cent.And Asia?
Asia is more substantial. Asia is about 15 per cent, but that includes Australia, which is a very big market for us. Bear in mind that 50 per cent of our sales are in the UKStill? But wasn't that the sales break-up average in 1999? You were thinking it would go up weren't you? But it hasn't really gone up.
No it has. The international is now above. So we have moved from international (sales) being about 45 per cent to about 55 per cent. That's been the change over three years.