BBC Studios Productions is the jewel in the crown of the commercial arm of the BBC, making everything from Doctor Who to Dancing With The Stars. Michael Burns speaks to CEO Ralph Lee ahead of his appearance at the IBC2023 Conference. 

BBC Studios Productions, the highly successful subsidiary of the BBC, has built on its freedom to produce content outside the PSB’s channels and is now a global powerhouse with original shows appearing on the streamers and terrestrial competitors alike. 


Ralph Lee, CEO, BBC Studio Productions

We’re lucky to get a chance to speak to BBC Studios Productions’ CEO Ralph Lee – he’s often travelling around the UK, visiting the various production bases of BBC Studios, such as Natural History in Bristol, Kids and Family in Salford, Specialist Factual in Glasgow, and continuing drama in Elstree, Birmingham, and Cardiff.  

“I also try to visit our international bases, particularly America as much as possible,” he explained. “We supply into the BBC, but also directly, and indirectly through distribution, to all the big global media companies. So the structure of my day is often fairly formalised meetings where we’re running the operations of a big production entity, interacting with other parts of BBC studios, and interacting with the critical clients and partners that we work with. [I’m always] maintaining those relationships and those contacts, and making sure the big, beautiful, creative, exciting, ambitious machine that is BBC Studios Productions is operating as best as they possibly can.”  

But what’s the secret sauce behind this international appeal? 

“We’re at our best when we’re telling big mainstream stories in ambitious and cutting-edge ways. Whether that’s through continuing drama and soap operas, big ambitious natural history, primetime mainstream drama, or ambitious documentaries, we’re into mass viewing, that’s where we want to be playing. And I think we’re at our best when we’re developing and delivering big entertaining ideas.  

“There is an inform, educate and entertain quality to all of BBC content, whether it’s mainstream entertainment, like Dancing with the Stars, or big, ambitious drama like Doctor Who or something more obviously factual, like Blue Planet or Frozen Planet,” he continued.  

“There’s an underlying purpose to what the BBC wants to achieve for its audiences, and that is to achieve mass entertainment, but also to maintain a very high quality of that and to have a greater purpose in everything that we do. If you look at the interesting alternative identity of the Doctor in Doctor Who and how inclusive that is as an idea, as a programme, and as a protagonist in big sci-fi, I think you get a little sense of how we’re trying to approach things a little bit differently.”  

Another different approach can be seen in the recently released Earth, presented by Chris Packham. An alternative voice to the hushed, measured tones of national treasure Sir David Attenborough, who would formerly have fronted a landmark natural history series from BBC Studios, Packham is a passionate and engaging frontman for this important role. 

“Chris Packham as a communicator is in the absolute A-list now, as far as I’m concerned,” agreed Lee. “You should look out for Inside our Autistic Minds, which was a series that we made for the BBC earlier this year, in which he effectively gave other people with autism the opportunity to make films about themselves. They were able to talk about their world through the medium of documentary. It was a brilliant example of how unique he is as a broadcaster. He can do the big stately landmark pieces like Earth and he can do the up-close day-to-day bird’s nest stuff of Springwatch, but he’s also got a voice about identity and culture. I think Inside our Autistic Minds is one of our best programmes this year.” 

Stand out stories 

One of the key themes in Lee’s presentation at IBC2023 is what makes BBC Studios stand out among the streamers and socials, and other competing distractions. 

“Underlying all of our programmes is the fundamentals of high-quality storytelling,” he explained. “If you get that right, then you’ll engage audiences. If you look at Bluey (BBC Studios holds global distribution and merchandising rights for the animated kid’s show) that’s just brilliant, authentic storytelling from Joe Brumm and his team. Is Bluey massively innovative? There are other shows about talking animals. No, it’s about its quality and about the voice and the authenticity of the place where it’s coming from. It’s got a very strong sense of identity and where it’s rooted in both its milieu and in the characters. Audiences respond to that globally; there’s not a country in the world that’s showing Bluey where it’s not a big hit show. So I think the fundamentals of authenticity and great storytelling cut through everything that we do, or that’s our ambition.   

 “If you look at Planet Earth III, which is coming out soon, ultimately, it’s brilliant cutting-edge scientific research rendered into great storytelling, but it’s made a bit different by the level that we’ve gone to with drone photography to get close to animals without disturbing them. In the same way that the helicopter gimbal shot made it possible to see animals from the air at a great distance without disturbing them for the first Planet Earth, well the drone shots are like that, only 1000 times closer and 1000 times more discreet. We can film animals in their natural setting in ways we never thought we were able to without long lenses. So although we don’t make a big deal of it, that’s one of the things that really lifts it and makes it feel different from what’s been seen before.” 

Modern times 

The TV industry is facing a variety of pressures at the moment, with the drop in regular work for freelance production workers and support staff being one of the most pressing.  As a big player in UK production, the situation is of obvious concern to Lee. 

“The biggest thing we can do to alleviate is to keep working, and keep people in work,” he explained. “Happily for us, we’ve still got a lot of work on. We’ve got a lot of returning programmes, a lot of continuing programmes and a big slate of both factual and scripted and unscripted programmes which are ongoing. We also do a lot of work supporting our staff and the freelance community. We work with the Film and TV Charity a lot on the work that they do supporting freelancers, and we’re doing a lot of networking and training to try and keep them going.  

“I’m particularly concerned about younger, lower-paid casual workers in the industry,” he continued. “I think we talk about freelancers a bit generally; there are a lot of very well paid highly qualified freelancers whose work naturally goes up and down with the industry, but I think there is a real problem with attracting and retaining young people into the industry when it offers so little certainty. We’ve probably got slightly higher staff levels here at BBC Studios because of our scale and the breadth of work that we do, and we invest a lot in that talent. We’re just starting up the third cohort of our Assistant Producers accelerator programme, where we take 15 researchers/APs and train them for a year on the job. It’s full-time work and after a year they’ve had a masterclass in being an Assistant Producer. We’re trying to build the editorial stars of the future and ensuring that people from a broad range of different backgrounds across the UK have an entry point into the TV world with the BBC. We’re doing everything we can to support the industry and support the talent.” 

Retaining talent is also important, and one of the initiatives Lee has brought in is the Pledge, which sets standards of behaviour for productions. 

“We always had a code of conduct; we’ve always had clear internal standards of behaviour that are expected,” he explained. “But what the pledge does is take those and surface them within a production so that at the beginning of production and throughout, you’ve got this reference point that says we the leadership and the people running this programme are accountable to all the staff, everyone working on the show. And if there are things that aren’t right, then we commit to listening to that, taking it seriously, and doing the right thing about it. 

“We’ve had a really good reaction to the Pledge, particularly from younger members of staff and younger production teams, where their expectation is an inclusive environment that is genuinely set up to empower and listen to everyone.” 

Global change 

Taking on the role of Director of Content at BBC Studios in 2018, Lee already had 25 years’ experience in the UK’s television sector, including 15 years in UK network commissioning roles, principally at Channel 4, and a decade of factual production roles. He says his proudest achievement as CEO comes from a recent staff survey that says people are much prouder to work there than they were in the beginning.  

“The culture has changed, and people are walking tall about the work that we’re doing,” he explained. “We’ve maintained our levels of business with the BBC, but we’ve also grown our production studios so that we’re working in a more ambitious, more global content environment, and we’re winning great big pieces of work. We’re not just making big programmes for BBC One, we’re making Prehistoric Planet for Apple, we’re making Good Omens for Amazon Prime, our label Sid Gentle has made Extraordinary for Disney+, and we’re working for all the big global players. So I think that in a way is the achievement: both the culture has changed. And the slate of programmes we’re presenting is bigger, more global, more able to meet audience needs and please audiences around the world.” 

You can find out the full story behind this continuing success at the IBC2023 Session ‘Supercharging Storytelling: In conversation with Ralph Lee, CEO, BBC Studios Productions’ on Saturday 16 September, 15:00 - 15:30.