BBC sells online content to China’s Sohu

UK statecaster’s China showcase draws 130 buyers

BEIJING -- BBC Worldwide has launched a two-year, non-exclusive content licensing deal in China with the online video channel of Sohu, one of the nation’s largest web portals, to feature British dramas and factual programming such as “Tale of Two Cities” and “Planet Earth.”

The deal, in which the U.K. statecaster gets undisclosed licensing fees but no share in potential advertising revenue from the world’s largest online audience, was announced Wednesday at the BBC’s first content showcase in Beijing, a gathering targeting 130 Chinese buyers drawn together by the ongoing Beijing Television Festival.

The deal with Nasdaq-listed Sohu is the first of its kind for the BBC, whose work in China stretches back 20 years but accounts for less than $5 million in total annual business, Steve Macallister, BBC Worldwide managing director for sales and distribution, told The Hollywood Reporter.

After years of inviting buyers to come to its annual showcases in Brighton and Rio de Janeiro, the BBC now is coming to sell in China, where the swelling middle class is seeking greater entertainment variety to supplement historically staid homemade programming.

“We thought China was the next obvious place to have a showcase,” Macallister said. “Our business in China is relatively small but we feel there is huge potential here.”

China’s television penetration is above 95% in a population of 1.3 billion and the nation has 420 million Internet users as of June.

Pointing to the 2008 BBC co-production “Wild China,” made with China Television Media, a production unit of state broadcaster China Central Television, Macallister said the company hopes to make more television with the Chinese.The series won three Emmys and sold to 60 countries, a success unmatched in the developing markets where the BBC works.

“We’re very much looking to replicate the ‘Wild China’ model going forward. A number of clients within the Chinese broadcast community have expressed interest in co-productions,” Macallister said.

While the BBC’s business in China “is still primarily selling finished TV shows,” Macallister said the company was “sensitive” to the fact that the relationship “had to be two-way.”

China’s one-party government, which has the final say in all media, has lately been encouraging local companies to make programs that will reflect a positive image of China as it takes its place on the global stage.

About making TV in partnership with Chinese companies whose content cannot challenge Beijing, Macallister said the BBC takes a practical view, saying that the U.K. statecaster understands it has to operate by the local rules in any country.

BBC Worldwide reached previous entertainment content milestones in China with such local productions of “Dancing With the Stars” and the singing show “Just the Two of Us” with Hunan TV, and with Chinese versions of “Teletubbies” and “Top Gear.”

Apart from the BBC’s licensing of entertainment content to Chinese broadcasters -- and now to Sohu -- and apart from offering its help localizing British shows, the broadcaster is not allowed to air its programming in China directly except in select luxury hotels and diplomatic residence compounds.

Other Western media companies also have tried in recent years to reach Chinese viewers with online programming where they could not on television. Warner Bros., for instance, has a similar online content arrangement with Sohu, and Discovery links its content to Chinese search engine Baidu.

Earlier this month, in what some saw as a sign of frustration at China’s closely guarded market, News Corp. sold its Chinese-language channels to a Chinese state-backed media development fund.

Pierre Cheung, the BBC’s Beijing-based vp and general manager for sales and distribution for Greater China, said the Sohu deal took six months to negotiate in consultation with the State Administration of Radio Film and Television.

SARFT, meanwhile, bars the BBC’s news programming from regular Chinese television, jams its World Service radio signals and blocks the BBC’s Chinese language news website.