After a record-breaking 2021, the BBC Studios-owned platform is prioritising streaming, CEO Marcus Arthur tells Steve Clarke.
‘It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” says UKTV CEO Marcus Arthur, a grin spreading across his face. The gift in question is Gold, the network’s flagship channel, whose audience share last year grew by 7%. Highlights included The Vicar of Dibley: Inside Out, Gold’s most popular show of the year, watched by 829,000 people, with original drama Murder, They Hope in second place, watched by 687,000, and returning scripted series The Cockfields (490,000) in third.
“In these tough times, Gold has helped take people out of themselves. It’s done extremely well during the pandemic and will continue to do so. People ask me if it has been affected by the arrival of BritBox, but it hasn’t.”
Showcasing gems from the BBC and ITV archive, Gold has been entertaining audiences since 1992. Arthur has run UKTV since June 2019 and, during his tenure, the platform’s share of commercial viewing has grown by an impressive 14%.
We are speaking the day after the Government announced its two-year licence-fee freeze but that, of course, has no impact on him since UKTV is wholly owned by the corporation’s commercial arm, BBC Studios. It is funded by advertising and carriage fees – three of its seven channels are free-to-air (Dave, Drama and Yesterday) while Alibi, Gold, W and Eden are available only on pay services.
In common with many of his peers, Arthur spent much of the past two years working from home, rather than at UKTV’s recently revamped offices in Hammersmith, west London, and forgoing business travel in the interest of a more sustainable future. BBC Studios has vowed to cut overseas travel by 50%, a move that other distributors should perhaps emulate.
Arthur lives in Surbiton, where he has kept himself fit by cycling, including regular sessions on his Peloton.
“Despite the pandemic, it’s been a great time to lead this business. Our results have been incredibly strong,” he says. Indeed, the past 12 months have been a year of record growth for UKTV as its share of commercial impacts (SOCI) increased by 5.7% year-on-year.
Much of the success was driven by original commissions – UKTV Originals accounted for six of the service’s top 10 shows in 2021. Thriller Annika, starring Nicola Walker, became Alibi’s top-performing title of all time as 1.32 million tuned in. It was joined by Meet the Richardsons (on Dave), Secrets of the London Underground, Hornby: A Model World and Bangers and Cash (all on Yesterday) and Mel Giedroyc: Unforgivable (Dave). “For a business of our size to cope with what the pandemic threw at us and still make great programmes was a considerable achievement,” he adds.
Overall, UKTV grew its viewing share in 2021 to 4.80% (up from 4.63% in 2020), the highest share to date for its current channel portfolio. Drama registered its best year on record: its adult share was up by 11%, with ABC1s up 14% year-on-year. Gold was up 7% on its 2020 share and Alibi grew its share by 5%.
Dave increased its viewing share for 16- to 34-year-olds by 14% year-on-year, driven by new comedy entertainment shows, which have seen Mel Giedroyc, Richard Ayoade and David Mitchell join Big Zuu on the channel’s roster.
Streaming may be booming but Arthur’s faith in linear is clear when he says: “I absolutely believe that there is growth in linear yet. If your content is strong, you can grow linear. You only need to look at the year we’ve just had.”
He adds: “We’ve probably taken a bit of share off everyone who sits above us on the EPG – ITV, Channel 4. Channel 5 is probably the only other UK broadcaster that has done as well as we have over the past 18 months. Growing your share is the most difficult thing to do because everyone is trying to do it.”
Nevertheless, the UKTV chief knows that, to sustain momentum, the next stage of UKTV’s evolution will be dependent on how the company develops its ad-funded VoD service, UKTV Play. “UKTV has always thought of itself as a linear-plus business but, having grown our linear, we are going to turn all our guns on VoD,” he declares.
This may be quite a challenge given the money flowing into streaming services on all fronts. But Arthur sounds bullish: “We are going to massively grow our VoD over the next 18 months.… We want to be bigger than My5.… The real number you’re trying to grow is ‘monetisable views’.” This dictates how much an advertiser-funded VoD service can make via viewers watching its content. In 2021, UKTV Play plus pay platforms grew “monetisable views” by 34%, while the total number of registered UKTV Play users reached 5.5 million, an increase of 1 million on the previous year.
"We still have ambitions to launch more channels"
To help further grow this part of the business, 12 extra staff – all of them digital natives – have been hired, doubling the size of the team. Andrea Amey was poached from My5 just over a year ago as general manager for digital, and the marketing budget has been beefed up. Improved functionality is another way of making UKTV Play more compelling.
Exclusive short-form content is being tested on Dave’s new YouTube channel, including a show based on Big Zuu’s Big Eats, which has the potential to be on UKTV Play. The VoD service has also bought some third-party classic series, including the ITV prison drama Bad Girls and US import The Good Wife.
The aim is to increase UKTV’s share of VoD viewing to the same size as its share of commercial impacts. “The fact is, my VoD share is about a third of the size of my linear share,” Arthur explains.
As for the platforms’ content strategy, he emphasises the close working relationship UKTV enjoys with BBC Studios, which bought out Discovery’s stake in the business in 2019. This enables it to commission exclusive high-end drama series such as Annika despite inflationary pressures.
Traces (UKTV’s first original drama commissioned by Alibi) was made by Red but distributed by BBC Studios, while We Hunt Together is produced and distributed by Studios. Upcoming drama The Diplomat is produced by World Productions and distributed by BBC Studios.
“Studios provides financing for our drama because of its high reputation in international sales. When Studios produces, it keeps the production margin inside the parent company,” says the UKTV boss. “Also, BBC Studios’ relationships are global. BBC America is owned by AMC, so Studios can approach it. We got a deal with AMC for Ragdoll, one of our most expensive dramas ever. We’ve also had co-productions with Pop, BritBox International and Showtime.”
Finally, what of UKTV’s channel line-up – is it set in stone or are new channel launches on the horizon? “We decided during Covid that we would focus on what we had and grow it, but we still have ambitions to launch more channels,” says Arthur. “For new channels, you need two or three things to come together – the content, the EPG slot and the distribution.
“If there is an opportunity to do more linear channels and it works for UKTV, we wouldn’t be shy of doing more.”
Watch this space. Already 2022 feels like another year of achievement for UKTV.