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BBC Studios Fires Starting Gun On Race To Replace Ralph Lee At Helm Of $2B Content Unit

EXCLUSIVE: The race to replace Ralph Lee at the helm of BBC Studios Productions is underway, with the studio signaling its ambition by approaching some of the UK’s top unscripted executives.

Lee will step down as the CEO of BBC Studios Productions next month after a six-year stint to “pursue a new challenge” but Deadline is told that headhunter Russell Reynolds Associates is already scoping out successors.

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The successful candidate will run a production unit that contributed heavily to BBC Studios’ £1.6B ($2B) content revenue last year, overseeing hits including Good Omens, Strictly Come Dancing, and David Attenborough’s natural history tentpoles.

Deadline understands that Russell Reynolds has held tentative early conversations with potential candidates including STV Studios managing director David Mortimer, ITV Studios unscripted director Angela Jain and Karl Warner, Channel 4’s outgoing head of youth and digital.

Fatima Salaria, who previously ran The Apprentice producer Naked, and Tim Hincks, the boss of BBC Studios-backed Clarkson’s Farm outfit Expectation, have also been approached. Another name in the frame is Tom McDonald, the former Blue Planet II commissioner who now heads up Nat Geo’s factual and unscripted offering.

Other executives linked to the role include Sky UK content boss Zai Bennett, former Endemol CEO Sophie Turner Laing, and experienced ex-BBC content boss Lorraine Heggessey. Internally, executives including factual boss Kate Ward, factual entertainment MD Hannah Wyatt, and recently-promoted Global Entertainment chief Matt Forde are all highly regarded.

Sources said Russell Reynolds has emphasized creative expertise in conversations with potential candidates, with people familiar with the process saying that the unit is looking for a “talent magnet.” BBC Studios declined to comment.

Drama Challenge

Nearly all those linked to the role have unscripted credentials, which will be helpful for a potential reinvention of Top Gear, but could raise eyebrows among industry observers who believe that BBC Studios’ scripted slate could be elevated.

Longrunning series including Holby City and Doctors have been canceled, while BBC Studios lost the production contract for Doctor Who in a highly unusual deal with Bad Wolf. BBC Studios still handles Doctor Who’s international sales and merchandise.

Deadline revealed BBC Studios Drama Productions boss Priscilla Parish was exiting after four years last year. Her replacement, Kate Oates, is more experienced in the continuing drama space rather than premium fare.

Sources have speculated in recent months that BBC Studios Drama Productions is being quietly shrunk as BBC Studios places more focus on its owned drama indies, including Killing Eve maker Sid Gentle, Steve Coogan’s Baby Cow, and Happy Valley producer Lookout Point.

Runners and riders

Mortimer has overseen a positive turnaround since taking over Scottish producer STV Studios in 2018, posting a profit and landing hits including Apple TV+’s Criminal Record starring Cush Jumbo and Peter Capaldi, and BBC gameshow Bridge of Lies. He is familiar with the internal workings of the BBC, having had a lengthy stint at the corporation during which he was both a commissioner and producer, and he also has experience stateside with NBCUniversal. Holding him back may be the lure of the STV job. His boss Simon Pitts announced his exit a fortnight ago and Pitts will join audio giant Global at the start of next year, with Mortimer the obvious replacement if STV looks internally.

ITV Studios’ Jain has quietly worked her way into one of the most powerful positions in the UK unscripted game. She became the production powerhouse’s first-ever Director of Unscripted in the UK in late 2021 and, although keeping herself mostly out of the limelight, is highly rated. Big-name credits include I’m a Celebrity and Love Island, while new IP such as Scared of the Dark and I Kissed a Boy has emerged under her watch. She is a former controller of E4 and has also commissioned for Channel 4 and Channel 5.

Warner is soon to exit Channel 4 amid the network’s 250-staff layoff program. Warner’s big success at Channel 4 has been Married at First Sight, for which he struck a multi-year deal in 2022 that revamped the hit show and has since seen it achieve record E4 ratings.

Hincks founded Expectation several years back with Peter Fincham and has since produced the likes of Clarkson’s Farm, Backstage with Katherine Ryan and In My Skin. He is a former Creative Director of Endemol UK, overseeing hits such as Big Brother, Deal or No Deal, and Black Mirror.

McDonald, meanwhile, has plenty BBC Studios experience having been factual director of the outfit before moving to Nat Geo. He oversaw the prestigious Natural History Unit, which is responsible for global brands including Blue Planet II and Planet Earth II.

McDonald’s former BBC colleague Salaria is also said to be in the mix. The experienced executive has been without a job since leaving Apprentice producer Naked last year and has worked on both sides of the commissioner-producer fence. She oversaw growth at Fremantle-owned Naked, during which it made The Rap Game, ITV’s Ghislaine, Prince Andrew and the Paedophile, and the Cara Delevingne-helmed Planet Sex for BBC Three and Hulu.

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