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Drag Race UK: A deep dive into how the spin-off got commissioned by the BBC

Drag Race UK: A deep dive into how the spin-off got commissioned by the BBC

How did RuPaul's Drag Race get commissioned by the BBC? | RuPaul/World of Wonder

RuPaul’s Drag Race UK is finally coming in 2019.

But how did a little drag show that began airing on Logo, an unknown gay US network, evolve to get a spin-off commissioned by the BBC?

Both RuPaul and Michelle Visage will be regular judges on the show.

‘I am beyond excited to celebrate the massive charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent of the Queen’s queens,’ RuPaul said.

Origins of Drag Race in the UK

RuPaul will host Drag Race UK | GuRu

Season 1 and 2 of Drag Race aired in 2009 on E4, a cable off-shoot of Channel 4. It was imported alongside other Logo shows like Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple In All The World.

Unsurprisingly, considering it aired in the middle of the night with no promotion, barely anyone watched it.

All Logo programming eventually disappeared from the network. British viewers were left without drag on television for years. But the show was picking up steam on American shores, especially in the wake of season 4 and 5.

London Live, a little watched cable channel, commissioned docu-reality series Drag Queens of London in 2014.

Many started dreaming of a Drag Race UK spin-off, including TV host Jonathan Ross.

‘I’m a big big fan of the show,’ he said in 2015, saying he had bought the rights.

Pitching the show 

Michelle Visage in Celebrity Big Brother | Channel 5

‘Nothing’s happening right now, but that’s not for want of trying on my part. Hopefully something will happen! I’m knocking on doors and I’ve spoken to at least three channels already.’

Sources said, at the time, the brand was not anywhere near popular enough to consider a spin-off.

But then Michelle Visage entered the Celebrity Big Brother house in 2016, a tribute to the burgeoning drag fandom in the UK.

RuPaul said, if she won, he’d go to the UK himself and get Drag Race UK commissioned. But, in fact, these conversations were already happening.

Name recognition

Rumors claimed, in 2016, that talks got so far they even began casting.

But then it all fell apart. Tru TV, which aired Drag Race in the UK at the time, hastily put together a competition to be a UK ambassador for the show.

Queens lip synced to a RuPaul song in front of him in a live competition. The winner, The Vivienne, won a trip to Los Angeles and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in season 8.

And then the show exploded on Netflix, reportedly becoming the most binged reality show on the streaming service in Britain.

Finally, in 2018, Drag Race star Courtney Act won Celebrity Big Brother. She became a rising star. She’s been chosen to host her own show on E! and will host her own Christmas special later this year.

RuPaul and the show keep picking up Emmys. The Simpsons had a special drag episode with voices from RuPaul and Raja. Drag Race became the most talked about show on Reddit in 2018.

The stage was set for Drag Race UK to be commissioned.

Other spin-offs

Art Arya on Drag Race Thailand | Line TV

But could a spin-off of RuPaul’s Drag Race even work?

Thankfully, it already has – in Thailand.

Drag Race Thailand is made by Thai TV group Kantana and airs on the streaming channel Line TV.

Executive producer Piyarat ‘Tae’ Kaljareuk, an heir to his family’s media company, told GSN he had to prove himself.

He bought the rights to model search reality show The Face, which has now enjoyed four seasons in Thailand.

‘Someone I actually dated for a little bit, he introduced me to Drag Race,’ he told Gay Star News.

‘I didn’t know a lot about the TV format at the time. But I looked at the program and I thought, “OK, I’ll just take a look,” and once I looked at it I thought, “Hey, this is something that everybody can enjoy.”’

The first season, hosted by Art Arya and Pangina Heels, proved a hit. Season 2 is now in production.

The rise of streaming services

The current judging line-up on the US version of Michelle Visage, RuPaul, Carson Kressley and Ross Matthews (not pictured) | VH1/World Of Wonder

Subscription streaming services are on the rise. It’s not unheard of for the average viewer to have subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Now TV, Hayu and more.

Research shows people under the age of 45 are more likely to go to an online source to watch TV than regular broadcast networks.

And as that audience grows, there is a need to capitalize on those viewers.

But streaming services live and die on the strength of their content. If there’s not enough content for people to drop money on it every month, people will then easily cancel their subscription and go elsewhere.

Enter Wow Presents Plus. World of Wonder, the production company behind Drag Race, has seen massive success in extending the drag brand. Why not ask drag queens to come to a basement and film them in front of a green screen talking about something for 10 minutes? It’s worked with Fashion Photo Ruview (with Raja and Raven) and UNHhhh (with Katya and Trixie).

But how to get Drag Race fans to part with their money?

Drag Race Thailand was on Wow Presents Plus for a short while. However, it disappeared after a few months for an unknown reason.

Fans surmised that Americans were not used to watching the show with subtitles. While Drag Race Thailand worked in Asia, perhaps it’s too ‘different’ for US audiences.

And so Wow Presents Plus had to come up with a new strategy. They are now releasing popular series, uncensored, a week before posting them on YouTube. But they need something else to keep fans hooked.

BBC Three

Graham Norton guest-judged on All Stars 2 | VH1/World of Wonder

But what about BBC Three? Launched in 2003, the channel was designed to attract young viewers. And for many years, many viewers loved a lot of its content.

Shows like Gavin & Stacey, The Mighty Boosh, Being Human and Torchwood got their start on the channel.

But then, in 2016, the channel ceased. It was replaced by an online version.

Viewership evaporated. When the channel was removed, the BBC said they expected not much would change because younger viewers were more likely to watch online.

But they didn’t provide much content for people to watch. After government cuts, the BBC focused their attention on family viewing that would reach a wide audience rather than target young people. BBC Three squandered.

Commissioning RuPaul’s Drag Race UK signifies a change in attitude at the BBC. Perhaps it’s time to reach out to young people again.

Why is BBC Three airing Drag Race UK?

Why would the BBC want to commission Drag Race UK and only air it on BBC Three? Wouldn’t a bigger channel want it instead?

Netflix currently owns the licensing rights to air RuPaul’s Drag Race US internationally. If Channel 4 or ITV, for example, wanted to commission a British version they would want to buy those rights from Netflix.

The BBC is offering World of Wonder something different.

‘BBC Three will be the go-to place for British viewers to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race UK,’ a BBC source told Gay Star News.

‘The show will probably be available to watch internationally on Wow Presents Plus.’

They added: ‘No other channel would have offered World of Wonder the same deal.’

This is a massive win for both the BBC and Wow Presents Plus. To have two major draws, RuPaul and Michelle Visage, starring on the UK version will give it more credibility than the Thai version. BBC Three will see a massive boom in its youth audience. And as the show will be in English, there will be no barriers for American and international audiences.

What will Drag Race UK look like? 

British drag queens | Instagram

Producers know the format works and will likely not be messing with it. That means, sorry Charlie Hides, there will be two challenges and a lip sync for your life.

The series will have eight episodes and will have 10 ‘home-grown’ queens as contestants.

Expect to see the contestants skew younger to fit in with its home on BBC Three. While we don’t doubt that lots of queens will want to enter, more experienced queens may wait to see how successful the new version is.

Filming will likely take place in London.

We’ll of course probably see takes on the royal family, perhaps a parody of Bake Off, and a Snatch Game.

But as for the contestants, guest judges and more? We’ll have to wait and see.

The 16 guest judges we’d love to see on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK