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BBC Launches Natural History Unit in U.S. (EXCLUSIVE)

Courtesy of Audun Rikardsen

For the first time in its 63-year history, BBC Studios’ renowned Natural History Unit is setting up shop outside the U.K. In 2021, the NHU will launch a permanent satellite office in Los Angeles.

The NHU is behind some of the world’s most iconic natural history programs, including “Blue Planet II” and “Planet Earth II,” which have been watched by more than a billion people globally. The new U.S. outfit will allow the production unit to better serve its growing roster of American buyers, with a laser focus on the streamers.

In the last 18 months alone, the unit has won projects with Apple TV Plus (“Prehistoric Planet”) and NBCUniversal (10-part landmark series “The New World”), as well as PBS (“The Green Planet”), BBC America (“Frozen Planet II”) and Discovery (“Endangered”). There’s also a collaboration in place with “Avatar” helmer James Cameron and Ocean X for Nat Geo. Overall, 25 projects are currently in production.

“Our titles have a global impact, but we have been a Bristol-based company,” says Tom McDonald, head of factual for BBC Studios. “Our biggest growth [since 2019] has been with U.S. buyers so it makes sense that we grow as those relationships grow, and have a 24/7 presence [in America].”

A meaningful U.S. profile will allow the NHU — which has won more than 200 awards in the last four years, including 4 Emmys and 11 BAFTA TV awards — to pursue more digital avenues in the natural history space. There are also hopes to scout more U.S.-based on and off-screen talent.

“One of the things that happens with the growth in popularity of natural history is an emerging pool of natural history talent in the U.S., and we want to be the incubator for that talent,” says McDonald.

While it would be a “fool’s game” to find a replacement to Sir David Attenborough, the public broadcaster’s most recognized presenter who is virtually synonymous with natural history programming, the executive describes up-and-coming hosts like Chris Packham, Ella Al-Shamahi and Liz Bonnin as “exceptional” talent for the Beeb.

McDonald adds: “We’re best known at the NHU for big, blue-chip natural history programming, but we have a very rich heritage in working with on-screen talent, with expedition and travel, live programming and a growing digital unit, so part of the role of NHU L.A. is to expand the range and tone with which we work.”

The NHU L.A. team — a mix of editorial and commercial — will report into the NHU’s Bristol headquarters, working closely with the senior creative team in the U.K. The outfit will be housed at BBC Studios LA Productions, run by general manager Valerie Bruce, and will partner with that existing team on the ground.

The new American offering has been largely spearheaded by McDonald, who has steadily risen through the ranks at the BBC, where he served as a commissioner for seven years: first for documentaries, and then science and natural history. He was then promoted to head of science and natural history and ultimately head of specialist factual.

The executive is responsible for some of the public broadcaster’s best-known natural history efforts in recent years, including smash hit “Planet Earth II,” “Blue Planet II” and “Big Blue Live.” Other factual slam-dunks include “Yorkshire Ripper Files,” “Who Do You Think You Are?” “Suffragettes” and “Muslims Like Us.”

In February, McDonald took up a new post as head of factual for production and distribution powerhouse BBC Studios — just two weeks before the U.K. was locked down. “What was most attractive for me going to BBC Studios was thinking about the incredible, rich heritage of what factual is and stands for. A big part of my strategy is going, ‘How do you take the very best of the BBC Studios factual heritage and, in certain areas, supersize it?’”

The executive recently carved out three distinct genre departments within his factual arm: the Documentary Unit, Science Unit and the NHU. It’s a move that will present a “very clear face to the market” about what’s on offer. “It’s about going, we are pre-eminently natural history, pre-eminently science, and we have an amazing documentary, history and arts story that I want to put out to market in a clearer way,” explains McDonald.

The Documentary Unit, for example, is responsible for all the Louis Theroux series as well as hits such as “Life and Death Row.” Next up is a follow-up to the well-received “Thatcher: A Very British Revolution” documentary, as well as “Celebrity: A 21st Century Story,” a new event series on the rise of reality TV stars set to air over Christmas, and a special access police series. Meanwhile, “Britain vs Coronavirus” is a feature-length documentary that will tell the definitive story of the pandemic in the U.K. for BBC One.

Elsewhere, in addition to Apple and Netflix (the Science Unit-produced “The Surgeon’s Cut” launched on the streamer recently), BBC Studios is also working on factual programs for newly launched Discovery Plus — the corporation struck a landmark deal with Discovery last year, with a raft of BBC content set to feed into the new offering — as well as Disney Plus via the Nat Geo tile.

“The fact that we are BBC Studios means we’re in the privileged position of being trusted makers with high-level access,” says McDonald. “Whether you’re an SVOD or the BBC, that access to people or places is really important. With ‘Surgeon’s Cut,’ they’ve taken a subject that’s well-trodden but they’ve made it feel really global. We’re not confined by country, and telling the stories of pioneering surgeries is a global story.”

While BBC Studios is now able to produce for broadcasters and platforms outside of the BBC, the outfit does a lot of business with the corporation, which is going through a transitional period.

Not only is there new leadership under former BBC Studios boss Tim Davie, who succeeded Tony Hall as director general in September, but an extensive restructure of the commissioning process has raised eyebrows among the U.K. production community in recent months.

Last week, the BBC announced that it was doing away with channel controller roles and instead focusing on genre heads, all in a bid to strengthen catch-up service iPlayer into a more robust digital offering. How might BBC Studios fit into this new model?

McDonald is no longer a commissioner, but as far as how the restructure affects factual producers, he points to the fresh potential for a “360-degree conversation” rather than the siloed thinking of years past.

“It’s where you’re not just talking about the factual programs on BBC Two, but when [discussing] natural history or science strategy, being able to talk across the whole portfolio around what a major supply of factual looks across the piece,” McDonald says.

Variety's Manori Ravindran contributed to this post.


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