BBC Worldwide buys stake in Oz's Freehand

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SYDNEY -- The BBC's push into global production has accelerated with the acquistion, by commercial arm BBC Worldwide, of a 25% stake in Australian independent production shingle the Freehand Group, the British broadcaster said Wednesday.

The Australian investment is part of a wider global strategy to become active in local content production, and marks the first deal of this nature in any market since the broadcaster announced its intention to expand into the international production sector on a global level last year, a BBC spokeswoman said.

BBC Worldwide's stake in Freehand gives it the right to distribute new Freehand programs and formats globally and gives Freehand first-look production rights in Australia and New Zealand for all BBC and indie formats to which BBC Worldwide holds rights.

The two companies will "explore new format production initiatives across a diverse range of genres, including entertainment and factual entertainment," BBCW said in a statement. "Freehand will work closely with BBC Worldwide's U.K.-based content and production division and BBC Worldwide's Sydney office to ensure that all opportunities are exploited."

Said BBC Worldwide Asia Pacific managing director David Vine: "Freehand offers exactly the synergies we're seeking: strong creative output, the ability to deliver across a range of genres and the capacity to deliver high-quality formats to the international marketplace."

Added Freehand CEO John Gregory: "This is a great vote of confidence by BBC Worldwide in the Australian independent production sector. This will mean greater depth of production and access to the international marketplace for Freehand productions and formats."

Freehand was founded three years ago by former Seven Network production and programming chief Chris O'Mara and producers Peter Abbott and John Gregory and has quickly made a name as a leading format and light-entertainment producer.

BBC Worldwide and Freehand first worked together on lifestyle program "Honey, We're Killing the Kids" for Network Ten in 2006, and are currently producing Pett Prods.' format "Celebrity Dog School," also for Ten.

BBC Worldwide formats recently produced in Australia include "Dancing With The Stars," "Just The Two of Us" ("It Takes Two") and "The Weakest Link."

Freehand's recent productions include "The Great BBQ Challenge" for the Lifestyle Food channel, the "Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards," Nine Network reality hit "Missing Person's Unit" and "Joker Poker."

Existing productions will not be part of the new BBC Freehand deal.
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