Don’t you just love the British taxpayer-financed BBC Worldwide signing an exclusive deal with pay TV monopoly Foxtel (50% owned by News Ltd and 50% owned by Telstra) that will whip all the BBC’s best shows off the ABC and other free-to-air channels in this country into a premium channel on Foxtel from 2014?

It is a deal that could only be done in colonies. If a similar deal were done in the UK, there would be an outcry from other media groups and politicians from all parties.

The news has shocked the ABC (which was only told of the new exclusive arrangements on Tuesday). It will be a major headache for ABC TV and the man appointed to be its new head, SBS executive Richard Finlayson. The BBC-Foxtel tie-up will force the ABC to find more local content (and spend more money) or new overseas content, which is in scarce supply (especially that of the same quality and appeal to ABC viewers as BBC programs). Seeing the heads of the ABC TV channels and Finalyson don’t have all that much experience in program making, it will test the national broadcaster’s ability to plug inevitable holes in its schedule.

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From early 2014, some of the ABC’s best programs (and highest-rating ones at that, such as Call The Midwife, Miranda, Orbit and various David Attenborough wildlife documentaries) will disappear from prime-time schedules, where they have taken viewers from Ten (and other networks). I’m sure this was not the the thinking behind this deal, but the impact will be serendipitous for Ten and the Murdochs. Foxtel is owned 50% by News Ltd (which controls the management and half the board). Stripping the ABC of its best BBC material will put downward pressure on the broadcaster’s ratings at a time when has been regularly beating the Ten Network in the all people demographic on most nights of the week and most weeks (in official and summer ratings).

BBC Worldwide’s Australian head of communications, Laura Dumbrell, told Crikey:

“The ABC will still have a chance to buy drama and comedy programs from BBC Worldwide 12 months after premiere transmission, as well as other programs that do not run on the new channel. Seven did not have a first-look deal with BBC Worldwide, so this should not change anything for them.”

Dumbrell says BBC Worldwide expected more viewers to result from the deal:

“As an example, the new deal for Top Gear, which goes out on BBC Knowledge before Nine, has done really well for both channels [the Top Gear Africa specials have just transmitted on Nine and got 740,000 and 927,000 overnights for parts one and two]. We think that BBC Worldwide content will still be viewed by as many people in Australia, there will just be more of it screening first on a BBC channel.”

But that won’t be the case — Top Gear had more viewers on Nine when in the first season when it took over from SBS as the Australian free-to-air broadcaster. After a couple of seasons, Nine renegotiated the contract, which gave it the right to broadcast Top Gear around a month after it had aired in Australia on Foxtel. That allowed Nine to reduce its costs by abandoning the very expensive BBC Worldwide requirement to produce a local version, which had failed dismally, as did a local version the BBC had required SBS to produce as part of its original deal. Both local versions were actually a waste of time and money and helped devalue the Top Gear name in Australia. BBC Worldwide is responsible for those flops as much as SBS and Nine were.

The fact that Top Gear still rates reasonably well on Nine a month after airing on Foxtel tells us not many people watch it on Foxtel. That free-to-air option has now been removed for people without pay TV. Foxtel is counting on that to drive more subscriptions. BBC Worldwide is banking the money from Foxtel and its senior executives are now doubt eyeing a higher bonus.

A win-win situation for those two, but not the overwhelming majority of Australian TV viewers.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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