In a wide-ranging interview about the BBC channels changing, I spoke to Joel Churcher, the vice president and general manager for Africa.
Joel Churcher spoke about the decision, the work that went into it, provides insights about the content aspects and considerations - and he reveals what's most exciting for him about the looming BBC channels change.
Why the decision the change and launch all of the new BBC channels from BBC Worldwide at the same time instead of changing just one like BBC Knowledge first to BBC Earth and using a phased approach?
Joel Churcher: It makes sense for us to do all at once as one big bang from a marketing perspective.
But this is also a global roll-out and if you look at what happened in other markets, not all of those markets took all the channels for their own reasons.
The affiliate partner already maybe had a drama channel or already had a natural history channel, whereas with MultiChoice they’re a big fan of the BBC channels, so it's a discussion we had with MultiChoice and they said ‘great, we want all of it’.
So it makes sense for us to launch it all at the same time. So South Africa as you know is the first country to get all three global brands as well as keeping CBeebies, BBC Lifestyle and BBC World News. So South Africa gets the full 6 BBC channel portfolios.
Why the decision to turn BBC Knowledge which becomes BBC Earth into an HD channel, and how does that make that channel better?
Joel Churcher: Firstly as a premium broadcaster all of our stuff is shot in HD.
And again its up to the affiliate partner to decide if they’ve got enough capacity to broadcast this from their satellite to the consumer in HD or SD.
Obviously we can deliver all of our new stuff in HD and in fact some of our natural history stuff is being shot in 4K.
So it makes sense if we’re filming natural history in HD which is probably how its best being enjoyed, to play it out in HD, but not all our affiliate partners around the world have that capacity. MultiChoice has limited spectrum on their ssatellite in order to play it out, so of the channels they want in HD, they chose the natural history one to be played out in HD.
For DStv subscribers who might not have access to BBC First when that starts, would some of that content eventually become available on BBC Brit as well?
Joel Churcher: Under the filters of the channels, they’ve been very much curated to play to BBC strengths.
In research about two years ago when we looked at our global offering, it was decided that we’ve got three pillars that we’re really good at: premium drama, factual entertainment and the third one is natural history.
So those three global brands were born out of those research strengths. BBC Brit is obviously factual entertainment, using the spirit of Top Gear and that sense of humour. BBC First is a pure drama channel and on that you will only get the best of British or the BBC’s drama offering.
Natural history fits on BBC Earth, but I should say that Earth isn’t just a natural history channel, there’s a lot more to it – documentaries on questions about how did we get to be here, what it is to be human.
The BBC is platform agnostic. We make a billion pounds a year in selling our TV shows to some of the biggest broadcasters on the planet. Drama will sit on BBC First if that channel is in that market, but drama certainly as a TV sales business certainly goes all over the world.
Certainly my vision in Africa is to offer our content wider than the MultiChoice family.
So of course the MultiChoice subscriber will always get first run brand new stuff because that’s what they’re paying for.
But as you know, we’ve done deals with VIDI [Times Media Group], we’ve done deals with M-Net, with [Naspers’] new SVOD player ShowMax, so it goes to say that over the next five years as Africa gets its mojo as over-the-top (OTT) players, there will be other opportunities to watch BBC drama outside of BBC First.
How much work went into this – I don’t know what the word would be – realignment or alignment to eventually roll out the new BBC brands in Africa? Because it was first Australia for BBC First and now then some BBC channels across Europe and now Africa. It’s actually very quick that these new brands are coming to this continent as well. How much work did it entail?
Joel Churcher: We’re methodical and we have to be.
There are so many stakeholders involved here from a corporate communications, from a corporate brand perspective, from a content perspective in terms of what we’re buying and what we’re making, our partnerships with our indies – there’s over 200 that we support in the UK, and obviously looking at our affiliate partners as well. So, an awful lot.
Research was done about what our three strengths were and try to build and curate and embody those strengths and not just be pure about it but also have some stretch as well - so there’s flexibility in local markets.
In Poland they launched BBC Brit and BBC Earth. There isn’t a BBC First. In Australia there’s a pure drama channel; and there is in Benelux.
And I believe the Benelux BBC First is a lot darker as a drama offering; they enjoy quiet drama a lot more than other markets. So there’s a lot of flexibility for us to make sure that we tailor the offering to our consumers wherever they are in the world.
Research was carried out by international agencies in New York in terms of the brand identity and the messaging that these brands will roll out globally.
The beauty and brains in London they worked effortlessly to work to get these brands so they could not just deliver and house content but also so they became more consumer-facing so that we future-proof ourselves and business for the next 5 to 10 years, so that if pay-TV in other parts of the world takes a nose dive, then these brands can live outside of a linear TV space.
So BBC Earth is a live event and a cinema experience in Japan. So an awful lot of work, discussion and partnerships have gone in to make sure that these brands are future-proof, that they look sharp, that they’re consumer facing and that they play to our strengths.
BBC Worldwide has made great inroads to bring a lot of the content quicker to BBC Entertainment for instance over the past few years. Will that still be a part of the value offering for BBC First? How important is it for viewers in Africa to get content quicker,or is it not yet such a priority for them?
Joel Churcher: It’s always important for us to make sure that content arrives to the audience as soon as we can.
It’s very much our ambition to make sure that they get it as close to the UK TX as possible.
However, under the TV business model, a lot of the content we provide on our channel isn’t ours. We have to go buy it; making sure that that channel offering reflect what the audience likes. The best example is Downton Abbey. Not ours. It means we have to buy it. We have to enter negotiations with NBC.
Top Gear for example is ours. So the fact that we can do a simulcast day and date is a great example of how we can do that.
But a lot of stuff we do, and Lifestyle is a great example – a lot of that is content we buy specifically for Lifestyle for South African viewers.
But that involves under the TV model us going out and negotiating with content producers and other distributors and making sure that we’re getting that content. But that can take time.
So something can play out on ITV on Monday night. We have to sit and negotiate for the next three months to get it on our channel in South Africa and that is why viewers might experience some lag time between the UK TX and South Africa.
What makes you the most excited about the coming change and what are you personally looking forward to the most? Not perhaps in terms of programming but of this next new BBC chapter?
Joel Churcher: I can give you my best example which is managing to get our content down into DStv Compact. So BBC Brit is now a Compact channel. So DStv channel 120 is now DStv Compact. And that can sit next to BBC Lifestyle.
So BBC Brit, although its enjoyed by young adults and women, it’s very much curated and put together as a “male” channel; that will then offset BBC Lifestyle as a female channel. And there you’ve got two brilliant Compact channels from the BBC. So that opens up a massive more viewership for us.
The other exciting thing for me is CBeebies. CBeebies has always been stuck up in the rafters as a DStv Premium channel, and that’s now going down into Compact as well, so we can wow our fans – our preschoolers – and it obviously means that our content can be seen by a lot more South Africans that we have over the last 7 years.
We've got two up in DStv Premium – BBC First and BBC Earth, and two down in Compact – BBC Brit and BBC Lifestyle, along with CBeebies and BBC World News which goes across the continent. That’s the most exciting thing.