The Shilpa factor takes off at the BBC as Raven goes to Bollywood

THE Raven has landed. The BAFTA-winning children's game show made by BBC Scotland has just won a £1.3 million commission for a series to be filmed in India, complete with a Bollywood starlet in the cast.

A 40-strong BBC Scotland team will spend six weeks in India making 20 episodes of the show, hosted by James Mackenzie. It will form part of the BBC's India season, a major initiative across all the corporation's TV and radio outlets looking at life on the subcontinent.

Raven's mix of mythology and game show has already won it a strong audience on CBBC and BBC1, where it recently averaged 675,000 viewers per episode.

Simon Parsons, the head of children's programmes at BBC Scotland, says he saw fertile territory for Raven in India, a country rich in its own beliefs: "Raven is very consciously rooted in Celtic mythology; the beauty of this programme is we can take it to India and make it very new."

Media interest in India - in its film industry at any rate - spiked upwards recently on the back of the sudden celebrity of Shilpa Shetty, the Bollywood actress who appeared in Celebrity Big Brother. India's 4.5 billion-a-year media market is also being eyed by UK publishers: Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail, recently struck a deal with an Indian media group to launch a daily newspaper there. That traffic goes two ways: India's national public-service network, Doordarshan, will this month launch two new channels on Sky.

Parsons says the "Shilpa factor" may have helped to push India into the UK's national consciousness, but stresses his show was already under discussion before the Bollywood star arrived in the CBB house.

"There has been a gradual growth of interest in Bollywood: a couple of years ago there was a film, Bride & Prejudice, that came out and suddenly hit the mainstream. People are ready to be interested, it's fertile ground, and Shilpa came at the right time because people were definitely interested."

BBC Scotland's production team is decamping to Ramoji Film City, a studio 90 minutes outside Hyderabad. It is owned by Indian entrepreneur Ramoji Rao, who struck out into media after making his fortune in pickles.

The set is used by Bollywood productions, but also houses a mock lost city similar to Hampi, the 500-year-old Indian ruins that often provide a fantasy location for Hollywood.

Parsons says: "Hampi is like a lot of historical sites, they are very wary about where you are going to put a tripod. If you've got a Hollywood budget, you can afford to spend the time negotiating, and we couldn't."

Instead, Parsons says, his team will film in a set "which is less than ten years old but looks 500 years old".

The Raven India production will feature 16 contestants, aged between 11 and 13, a dozen of whom will be from the UK. The other four have been selected from local schools, and the production will also star Bollywood starlet Tara Sharma as a princess.

Parsons, 46, says that filming in India has had a steep learning curve. "The harder issues to deal with are, for example, that you get there and you find out that people are laying slabs on set with bare feet and no hard hats".

While Raven is currently sold to Canada and may be broadcast in Australia, it has some way to go before rivalling Balamory, the global children's hit produced by BBC Scotland.

BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial arm, has already dangled Raven India before Disney, Rupert Murdoch's Star network and Nickelodeon, all of which broadcast to Indian children.

However, Parsons says, the global broadcasters went cool after an initial period of interest: "They want us to prove to them that children in India will enjoy this. They say that Indian kids will like to see a drama with a child in it, but they don't want to see other children having fun because they would rather be having the fun themselves.

"My experience is children are a little bit more alike the world over than that."

Spin-offs from TV shows, whether in the form of DVDs or format sales to overseas broadcasters, are now a key part of any broadcaster's income. Within the next two years, BBC Scotland children's department plans to make 10 per cent of its money from "third-party" sources, such as CDs and DVDs.

Parsons says: "What we get from the BBC is enough for us to make programmes, but not to compete with what is coming from America."

On the face of it, he should feel fairly pleased with himself. His department has produced successful recent shows, including the preschool science programme Nina and the Neurons and an inventions series, Whizz Whizz Bang Bang. A new numbers-based quiz, Get 100, will air soon (Parsons says it has "a similar kind of chemistry" to Channel 4's hit, Deal or No Deal).

However, Parsons is anxious about a future in which the UK's commercial broadcasters may increasingly shy away from children's production. Children's programmes have been traditionally difficult to make a profit from - they typically have lower budgets than mainstream drama - and they face losing more money in the wake of the Government's decision to ban junk-food commercials in children's programming.

While Parsons is no fan of the junk-food industry, he fears the coast is now being cleared for a glut of US imports, as UK broadcasters edge away from making children's shows: "When the advertising ban comes in, and it is kicking in progressively, it will take around 39 million out of the market for commercial children's TV."

One indicator of tough times ahead was ITV's announcement that it is cutting children's output on ITV1 from eight hours a week to five. Simon Shaps, ITV's director of television, says: "There are real challenges for the funding of children's programmes to which ITV1 is not immune."

The profitability of children's television in the UK may seem an arcane industry argument, but Parsons says it boils down to a simple issue: "I think a lot of adults will care about whether the next generation are exposed only to American content or whether they are exposed to stuff that reflects Britain."

That is an industry quandary likely to tax the powers even of the mighty Raven.