BBC Worldwide GC: Thinking outside the box
25 March 2012 | By Ruth Green
30 April 2014
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Television is a lot more than what appears on the screen. BBC Worldwide general counsel Martyn Freeman has a lot to keep up with
Having spent the past 17 years working for the BBC, Martyn Freeman was an obvious choice when BBC Worldwide decided to appoint its first general counsel in November 2011.
As a result, far from starting from scratch, Freeman describes his new role as “more of an extension or an evolution” of his previous position as group head and director of BBC Worldwide’s legal and business affairs division.
Although comfortable with the task in hand, managing the legal and business affairs division of the BBC’s commercial arm, which involves approximately 150 staff across offices in London, Paris, the US and Australia, is no mean feat. According to Freeman, the US arm BBC America is a key part of the group’s international strategy and has 10 lawyers split across the two US offices.
“In the US we have BBC America, which has a big sales team and a production division on the West Coast that produces programmes such as Dancing with the Stars, which is our biggest remake of Strictly Come Dancing,” he explains. “There’s also a team of lawyers on the East Coast dealing with other issues such as channels and sales.”
One challenge for Freeman’s team is to keep up with the company’s growth as certain parts of the business continue to expand to cope with international demand.
“Like most organisations, we’re becoming more international and our focus strategically is increasingly international, so the question will come at some point whether to set up more regional hubs,” he says.
Back in the UK, the legal team sits within seven operating divisions: magazines; consumer products; sales and distribution; channels; content and production; digital entertainment; and brands, consumers and new ventures. For Freeman, it is vital that his lawyers are always part and parcel of the wider Worldwide team.
“Although the legal team reports to me, each head of legal sits within their relevant operating divisions so they can be much more effective business partners and be involved in key decision-making,” he says. “It’s much better having them there on hand so they can work to constructively find solutions.”
As for external law firms, BBC Worldwide uses the same firms that appear on the BBC panel, which are primarily Olswang and Field Fisher Waterhouse, as well as SJ Berwin for competition and regulatory matters and Reed Smith for litigation.
“For day-to-day stuff we deal with it in-house,” says Freeman. “But if we’re doing a joint venture, a merger, a big high-value transaction or want their perspective on how to deal with an issue, then we’ll go to them.”
Ensuring consistency with the BBC is one issue that Freeman deals with on a daily basis.
“Editorial policy is a key area as we have to make sure that everything we do is consistent with the BBC’s editorial guidelines and keeps the BBC’s values of impartiality in the content we produce,” he says.
There is never a dull moment as far as Freeman is concerned.
“One of the great things about working somewhere like the BBC is that you have a different view of the horizon line and you’re always pushing the envelope in some way, whether for new deals or introducing new technologies, so it’s intellectually stimulating. And it means that all the people you’re working with are very creative and innovative.”
However, he stresses that the BBC’s broad remit can pose a plethora of legal challenges.
“Unlike a lot of companies that are single activity, we’re everything: multiplatform, multimedia, multi-territory and multiformat,” he says. “Any new thing that happens to technology brings a whole load of legal questions that need to be answered.”
The brands, consumers and new ventures division, for example, focuses on the group’s global brands such as Top Gear, Dancing with the Stars and Doctor Who. This requires the legal team to advise on a huge range of issues, from BBC Live Events to new products such as console games. The rise of social media and networking has also been an ongoing challenge.
“It raises the question of what people can say as employees and what they can say as private individuals and other issues such as how it relates to children,” notes Freeman.
That said, social media has also become a useful tool.
“We have something like 11 million Top Gear fans on Facebook,” he says. “That’s an audience of 11 million dedicated fans that we never knew existed before and now we have a direct way of communicating with them.”
New technology affects all aspects of BBC Worldwide’s work and throws up many issues for the legal team.
“New technology impacts on everything - content, production and even sales,” says Freeman. “It’s not just about linear sales. It used to be that something came out on television and six months later it would come out on DVD. Now there’s download-to-own, video-on-demand and the windows of exploitation for all these things is changing.”
While there are more challenges ahead, for Freeman there is no better industry to be working in right now.
“Media is really fascinating in the way that digital is transforming the way and the speed at which everything works,” he enthuses. “The most challenging thing for us now is how to handle the increasingly international complexity of the business and all the compliance and legal issues that it throws up, the pace of digital change and the way it’s impacting not only on what we do, but how we do it and how we pay people for it.”
Position: General counsel
Reporting to: BBC Worldwide chief executive John Smith
Annual revenue: £1.2bn
Employees: 150 (legal and business affairs division); 2,100 (total staff)
Legal capability: 50 lawyers
Legal spend: Ranging from £500,000 to £1.5m
Main external law firms: Field Fisher Waterhouse, Olswang, Reed Smith, SJ Berwin
Grainne Brankin, international legal director, CBS Outdoor International
The media landscape has changed significantly in the past decade and the pace of change is accelerating. Advertisers’ concerns about fragmenting audiences are intensified by the multitude of platforms now available to people.
At CBS Outdoor we see more advertisers responding to this by inviting consumers to get involved with their campaigns through incentives and participation and wanting to use interactive mechanisms in their advertising.
Out-of-home advertising has benefited from an explosion of relevant interactive technologies such as Quick Read codes - the barcode patches on a poster that can be read by a smartphone and links to online content such as a discount voucher.
This interactivity and the personalisation of technology are redefining out-of-home advertising’s role and the range of legal issues we need to address. Recently the legal team has been focusing on data protection and technology supplier contracts that a few years ago would not have been a significant part of our legal work at CBS Outdoor.
This also affects what we need from our law firms both in terms of areas of expertise and the technology they can offer us as part of their service.
Scott Dresser, general counsel, Virgin Media
The world in which we live and work is now unrecognisable from even as recently as five years ago when we launched Virgin Media. The intervening years have seen the development of the BBC iPlayer and the ’tablet’. When Virgin Media was formed, the fastest available broadband was just a sixth of what we offer today.
In our fast-changing industry, and in developing our legal team, top-of-the-line traditional skills remain essential, but today’s Virgin Media lawyer must match the convergence of the world in which we live with multi-dimensional capability.
Given the breadth and nature of our business, our lawyers must be steeped in the technology that underpins everything we do - from the broadband capabilities
of our next-generation network to the ever-evolving ways in which we deliver content to our customers.
Our lawyers play a pivotal role across the business: executing strategy to implementation; keeping up with technological change, innovation and competitive pressures; staying ahead of the latest advances in technology and the constantly evolving laws that regulate, protect and license them; and anticipating and planning for the implications of change across the industry.