British Holiday Programming Is a Global Bestseller

As the days grow shorter and families hunker down cozily in front of the TV, British holiday programming has grown into a dependable export around the world, thanks to the success of Christmas specials for shows like “The Office” and “Gavin & Stacey.”

“Demand for British content is higher than ever across the board,” says Louise McNab, director of content sales at BBC Studios, the commercial arm of the U.K. public broadcaster. “International audiences appreciate the ambition and creativity of British shows, as well as the level of authorship.”

Sally Habbershaw, executive VP for the Americas at All3Media, likens holiday specials for top offerings like “All Creatures Great and Small” and “The Larkins” to “a cup of warm tea and a blanket.”

“You snuggle and enjoy them,” says the executive, who notes that holidays “ideally represent some form of nostalgia and security.”

Despite the increasing audience fragmentation caused by individual media devices, Habbershaw is a firm believer in the communal experience of watching a seasonal TV event with family, a version of which is common among most households. The executive points to niche outlets like BritBox, Acorn TV and PBS Masterpiece as go-to destinations for British programming in the U.S.

Jason Simms, director of international scripted at Comcast-backed pay TV operator Sky, notes that while British comedy might have been a challenging sell in the past, the success of writers and performers like “Ted Lasso” star Nick Mohammed, “Catastrophe” creator Sharon Horgan, Aisling Bea of “This Way Up” and “Fleabag” powerhouse Phoebe Waller-Bridge, among others, has blazed a trail for the genre on the international stage.

“The appetite across our genres cuts through all routes to market,” McNab says.

However, the intention isn’t necessarily global domination. BBC programs usually adhere to the mantra “Local — out,” meaning that programs must first target the U.K. domestic market, and then global sales follow.

Similarly, Sky first focuses on producing originals for its subscribers in the U.K., Germany and Italy. The content then travels widely across the Sky group and then the rest of the world through international sales outfit NBCUniversal Intl. Television Distribution.

Simms says that Sky’s holiday-focused content, which this year includes Mark Gatiss-starring ghost story “The Amazing Mr Blunden,” tends to perform well in English-speaking countries, particularly Australia, New Zealand and Canada, but also sells widely internationally. Other highlights from the 2021 slate include “Hansel and Gretel: After Ever After” and the movie “A Boy Called Christmas.”

Although the U.K. public service broadcasters’ full holiday slates will be revealed later this month, the BBC is already seeing strong demand for upcoming titles, including the Ben Whishaw-led “This Is Going to Hurt,” adapted by Adam Kay from his international bestselling memoir; and “Superhoe,” based on Nicôle Lecky’s solo stage play.

While “This Is Going to Hurt” is culturally specific, following the travails of a junior doctor in the U.K.’s beleaguered National Health Service, global audiences have become used to seeing images of medical services pushed to the limit during the pandemic, explaining the demand for the show, which will bow on co-production partner AMC Plus in the U.S.

Meanwhile, in “Superhoe,” millennials and Gen Zers will find the portrayal of life on social media and the world of influencers somewhat familiar, McNab says.

Adds the BBC executive: “The strength of writing, characterization and production values are what audiences come to our scripted shows for, and we find that a strong sense of place helps shows travel.”

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