Docs

Tribute to BBC Natural History Unit: Bestsellers Overseas

David Attenborough's epic, 13-part Life On Earth, chronicling the geological development of the planet over 3,500 years, has been seen in more than 100 countries. An estimated 500 million viewers have watched it. Yet it doesn't feature in the BBC's list...
January 1, 1998

David Attenborough’s epic, 13-part Life On Earth, chronicling the geological development of the planet over 3,500 years, has been seen in more than 100 countries. An estimated 500 million viewers have watched it. Yet it doesn’t feature in the BBC’s list of all-time natural history bestsellers. This is because the Corp. signed over the U.S. and European rights to Warner Brothers and Rainer Moritz respectively, the series’ coproducers. It was a costly and embarrassing mistake.

Twenty years later, the BBC appears to have learnt its lesson. However, a decade after the Life On Earth fiasco, the bbc found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to reacquire the rights to Supersense from Coronet Films, the U.S. partner on the series, having realized it had huge international potential; Supersense became the fourth biggest-selling program in the Unit’s history.

The Living Planet, Flight of the Condor and Animal Olympian are the three bestselling bbc programs of all time. It’s estimated that The Living Planet and The Trials Of Life have, between them, grossed around US$13 million.

With channel proliferation, the demand for natural history fare has never been greater. But competition is fiercer with the emergence of powerhouse distributors like DocStar and Explore. The creation of United Wildlife, formed from Partridge Films and Survival Anglia, in the U.K. may also make life tougher for the BBC.

‘The natural history market is very crowded at the moment,’ admits Mark Reynolds, the nhu’s commercial manager. ‘A lot of people have latched onto it in terms of being a safe distribution bet.

‘There is concern over whether the bubble is going to burst. I don’t think we have any problem with our mainline programming. There will always be a demand for the very best, high-quality output. But we have to make sure we don’t over-commission.’

The BBC’s niche, of course, is high-end rather than low-cost, high-volume programming. And it is the blue-chip series such as The Living Planet and the recent Wildlife Specials, costing around US$1.2 million each, which work best globally.

The best of these shows enjoy long shelf-lives; two years ago, Reynolds negotiated a repeat sale on The Living Planet, first screened in 1984, to a German broadcaster at a similar price as the initial deal.

Other evergreens include the flagship The Natural World and Wildlife On One. The Great White Shark was made only three years ago but repeat sales have already been completed.

Presenter-led series, with the exception of the Attenborough blockbusters, tend to do less well than animal-behavioral docs. Environmental programs such as Big Skies, which failed to cover its budget in overseas sales, are also difficult to sell.

In this Report:
-Bristol’s Natural Wonder
-BBC NHU’s Bestsellers Overseas

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.

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