Case Study: BBC wows international buyers

With 450 global TV executives to impress, BBC Worldwide had to pull out all the stops to make this year's Showcase a sales event to remember, as Kerry Baggott reports.

When an annual event is in its 29th year, it's hard to come up with ways to differentiate it from previous years. But BBC Worldwide head of events Elaine Gordon can simply turn on the television to seek inspiration.

At this year's BBC Showcase, the corporation's biggest annual event, she chose the forthcoming revival of Dr Who to set the scene for the second night's gala dinner. And the overseas delegates, many unfamiliar with the timelord's escapades, were in for a surprise. A live, five-minute performance - using a script written especially for the event by Russell Davies, writer of the new series - saw the Doctor save the world from aliens, green monsters and daleks in pyrotechnic clashes.

"Working with actors is not easy," says Gordon. "We didn't have time to complete the rehearsals, so the performance was like doing it for the first time. But it worked so well."

By the end of the 'show', delegates had gained a much clearer idea of the programme - the exact aim of Showcase. Around 450 international TV broadcasters, producers, programme buyers and schedulers descended on the Brighton Centre in Sussex for three days to view and negotiate contracts to buy BBC programmes. "When you're abroad and you see a BBC programme, the chances are it was bought here," says Gordon.

Over the three days, delegates are allocated an individual booth comprising a TV, video recorder and an armchair. From a catalogue of 5,000 programmes, they collect their videos from a Blockbuster-style library and then review them.

Each day, presentations were held in the main auditorium, giving delegates an insight into shows yet to be completed. "This allows broadcasters to get in early and be the first to screen a new series overseas," she says.

The rest of the days were spent negotiating deals, with every inch of available space in the centre used. "Everywhere I looked, even in the bars, people were having meetings," says Gordon. "The centre was filled to capacity."

In fact, it remains to be seen if the Brighton Centre can continue to host the event. There is talk of it closing for refurbishment in a few years, but if Showcase continues to grow, BBC Worldwide may have to source another venue before then. It's been home to the event for 19 years, primarily because of its location close to Gatwick, the 'blank canvas' set-up and because the nearby DeVere Grand hotel offers five-star banqueting.

With the help of agency Communication by Design, the centre underwent a total transformation inside. The work included cladding the walls, recarpeting, constructing a false ceiling and adding lighting.

Although the aim is to generate £50m of revenue, the budget for the event is only £750,000 and this has to cover the three days of the show and four gala dinners.

"The budget has remained the same for the past four years, so I have had to reduce spend in other areas, such as cutting out the buses between the Centre and local hotels and haggling like mad with suppliers," says Gordon.

However, it's harder to make savings on the gala dinners held in the Grand's ballroom - especially as they have become evermore inventive.

"The four dinners need to be distinct from each other. They are also another opportunity for us to soft sell because the aim is that the events bring the programmes to life," she says.

The opening night kicked off Showcase in relatively sombre mode with a moving speech by actor Bill Nighy to promote the new Richard Curtis film, The Girl in the Cafe, in which he takes the leading role. His aim is to get the romantic comedy, which has a message about third world debt, televised in as many countries as possible before the G8 Summit in July.

This was in contrast to the second night, which saw, with the help of production company Anagram, Dr Who and his enemies take centre stage in the specially commissioned sketch. Even the food reflected the show's futuristic feel with unusually shaped sushi and luridly coloured balls of sorbet.

The third night had a big band theme taken from the film The Secret Life of Frank Sinatra, which is being screened this summer. The same room that had been a 'time tunnel' the previous night became a moody piano bar.

Finally, the last night of Showcase was taken over by Strictly Come Dancing, with professional dancers from the hit BBC series teaching delegates how to perfect their moves, before a competition hosted by Tess Daly. "The concept was completely new to many delegates," says Gordon. "And, judging by the number of people who entered, it went down a storm."

Gordon has organised this event for the past seven years, but it is the one she is most proud of. Let's hope the BBC's programme makers will give her more inspiration next year.

FACTFILE

Company: BBC Worldwide

Event: BBC Showcase

Agencies: Communication by Design; Dovetail Foks; Anagram

Dates: 27 February to 2 March 2005

Venue: Brighton Centre and The Grand, Brighton

Group size: 450

Budget: £750,000

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