Despite the doubters, Doctor Who celebrates its 50th birthday, strengthening its claim to be the most successful show in the history of the BBC

November 22, 2013 7:50 pm

The Doctor regenerates into global cashcow

By Henry Mance

Mary Whitehouse called it “teatime brutality”; a television executive said it had “no redeeming features” and some parents worried it was becoming too sexy. Yet despite the doubters, Doctor Who celebrates its 50th birthday on Saturday, strengthening its claim to be the most successful show in the history of the BBC. Scrapped by the broadcaster 24 years ago before being relaunched in 2005, it is at the forefront of efforts to sell BBC content to the world.

This Saturday’s anniversary episode – number 799 – will be shown live in over 90 countries. Australian cinemas have sold 60,000 tickets.

“We’re seeing the emergence of a global fan base,” says Tim Davie, head of BBC Worldwide, the broadcaster’s commercial arm.

The science-fiction drama’s appeal spread first to Canada, home of creator Sydney Newman. Now, says Mr Davie, it is expanding beyond the English-speaking world to markets such as China, Brazil and Mexico.

Mari Koivuhovi, who brought the show to YLE, the Finnish state broadcaster, says the local audience is small but dedicated. “Doctor Who is the only programme that gets young people writing on our internet pages.”

Such fanaticism has been a characteristic of the programme’s success. When the BBC failed to sell rights for the latest series in Argentina, a local fan, Nadia Silva, helped find local cinemas to show it instead.

“I fell in love [with Doctor Who] from the first episode,” she says.

The Argentine advertising student discovered the show through illegal downloads but has since become a bona fide customer for BBC Worldwide, estimating her spending on DVDs and merchandise at £100.

“Whovians” – the nickname given to the show’s most fervent fans – have a wide range of Doctor Who paraphernalia to spend money on. Products licensed by BBC Worldwide include a remote-control device that plays sounds from the show whenever the user changes the channel – 36,000 of them were sold last year alone.

The Doctor Who homeware range features a Silver Dalek Towelling Robe, priced at £44.99.

Experts say the show’s appeal – and its longevity – stems in part from the sense of renewal that comes from changing the actor who plays the Doctor every few years.

“It does seem to have been one of these evergreens that can be reinvented and repurposed,” says Alice Enders, a media analyst. The 12th Doctor, the acerbic Oscar-winning actor Peter Capaldi, takes over in December.

In recent years, the series has been praised for its acting, wit and unpretentious production values, explained in part by its constrained budgets.

Although high by BBC standards, budgets cannot match the glitz of big US dramas.

“There’s often criticism that the UK doesn’t take the risks that America does,” says Tim Hincks, head of Endemol, the production company. Doctor Who has shown that it can compete in the global TV market, he says.

Some doubts still cloud the franchise’s future. The BBC thought some emerging markets would be “easy pickings” for its programmes, says Ms Enders. Instead it faces strong competition from local producers, whose output is tailored for Mumbai rather than Manchester.

“The biggest competitive factor is the strength of local players and their relevance [to the audience],” says Mr Davie.

Another question, says Ms Enders, is where the next Doctor Who is coming from. “Is [the BBC] investing anything on the scale of Doctor Who now?” she queries.

Downton Abbey, produced by NBC Universal, and ITV’s Mr Selfridge have had international success by trading on the Britishness that was once unique to the BBC. The broadcaster is currently pinning hopes on reality formats such as The Great British Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing.

For the BBC, besieged by criticism over its management and strategyDoctor Who has become a metaphor for reinvention. “I suppose you can’t be the home of Doctor Whofor 50 years without learning something about regeneration,” the new director-general Tony Hall joked last month.

Do global hits pay their way?

Recent series of Doctor Who are estimated to have cost about £15m to produce – money that the public service broadcaster cannot recoup through advertising or subscriptions in its domestic market.

So does export success pay the bill? Global brands such as Doctor Who
Top Gear
 and BBC Earth generated £300m in sales last year for BBC Worldwide, or about a third of total income.

A rough calculation, assuming an equal share of those revenues for each of the “superbrands” and applying a profit margin typical for BBC Worldwide, leads to an annual profit of about £14m from Doctor Who. That is nearly enough to pay for a series, or the licence fee of 100,000 households.

In reality, margins are likely to be much higher, especially as some revenues come from the back catalogue.

“It would be extraordinary if Doctor Who had not been among the most commercially positive assets for the BBC,” says Alice Enders, a television analyst.

BBC Worldwide pays part of Doctor Who’s costs and returns the profit through its annual dividend.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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