Absolutely Fabulous

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Is BBC America turning us into a nation of Anglophiles? With its non-stop fare of the serious, the realistic, and the outrageous, it could happen.

Paul Lee is not your typical TV executive. The chief operating officer of BBC America is modest, witty, serious, and refreshing (just like the cable channel he is spearheading). And besides, he's English.

"There is no door you can't open with a British accent," he says, only half-joking. Lee's task is to open as many American doors as possible to the channel he helped start up here in March 1998. So far, so great: BBC America, a joint venture of the British Broadcasting Corporation and Discovery Networks, which handles affiliate and advertising sales, is now seen in 10 million U.S. homes and is well on its way to reaching its target of 25 million households by 2003.

"It's amazing how many Americans have been willing to come along with us," the Oxford graduate and former BBC TV editor says. In the future, Lee hopes to make BBC America a "mainstream brand," a home for American Anglophiles. It could happen, if BBC's initial research findings are correct: 63percent of U.S. cable and satellite subscribers are aware of the BBC brand.

But with 10 million subscribers - considered a solid reach for a start-up - BBC America's audience is still too small to show up on Nielsen's ratings radar. That's why Lee and his staff will switch gears early this year by launching a national consumer marketing campaign, replacing the promotional ads the company has been running in New York, Los Angeles, and on local cable stations across the country, to help trigger more cable distribution. The details of the campaign were not available at press time.

In fact, there has been a fair amount of discussion in the media community about why cable giants like Cablevision and Time Warner have not jumped at the chance to sign up BBC America, which is currently available via satellite on DirecTV, EchoStar's DISH Network, and Primestar, as well as on digital cable offered by TCI and Cox Communications.

"It comes down to this," says Lyle Schwartz, senior vice president and director of media research at The Media Edge, the media arm of ad agency Young & Rubicam. "Can Time Warner make more money by putting them on the air?"

But a spokesman for Time Warner says that the absence of BBC America from their cable station has less to do with content than it might appear. "We have not yet been able to negotiate a deal," says Mike Luftman. "It takes two to tango."

In fact, this might be just the right time for BBC America to make its move, given the continuing fragmentation of media in the United States, which is making niche programming increasingly desirable. BBC also benefits from an upscale audience with a median income of $60,000. And while it was once thought that only "certain types" took to PBS's classic British fare like Upstairs, Downstairs, or the comedy of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, it appears that more Americans are embracing the British aesthetic. Austin Powers' Mike Meyers, who acknowledges the influence of English comedy on his career, has certainly helped the cause. And let's not forget that Who Wants to be a Millionaire, like The Antique Road Show, is a British import. "The success of these shows shines light on us," says Lee.

Linda LaVigne, research manager at Discovery Networks, has conducted focus groups on behalf of BBC America. LaVigne says that people throughout the country, from Texas to Florida to Massachusetts, have had a positive response to the programming. One group in Nashville, for example, became so engrossed in EastEnders, a realistic drama about the lives of working-class residents in the Walford area of London, that they begged the focus group leaders to tell them the outcome of future episodes. And BBC America, which is based in Bethesda, Maryland, says that it receives an average of 1,400 inquiries a month from viewers who either want to know more about certain shows, meet the stars, or buy the programming on videotape. Even media writers have been known to ask for more than their share of tapes of some popular shows: "If I had to ask for money for all the videos we have given out, I would be very rich," muses publicity manager Maria McDonagh.

What's the appeal? For one thing, BBC America offers a broad range of programming, over 60 percent of which is original. And the company has the luxury of cherry-picking, in Lee's words, the best of the programming that's shown in Great Britain. That means Americans starved for international news can tune in to BBC's coverage, four times a day. The channel also offers an array of classics such as Doctor Who and Blackadder, as well as new shows like Real Soap, a documentary series that was introduced last August and has already earned a loyal following here (Maureen Rees, the 55-year-old cleaning lady who made failing a driving test seven times seem like a virtue in the documentary Driving School, has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno).

In fact, many of BBC's shows are unvarnished portraits of the lives of real people, a formula that seems to appeal to Americans as well as their British counterparts. LaVigne says thatmost of the focus-group participants said they appreciated BBC America's realistic approach.

At the same time, American viewers have also come to expect irreverence and wit from British programming, which is why new, more off-the-wall shows are also catching on here. There is, for example, The League of Gentlemen, a six-part comedy set in a fictional English village and featuring three guys who play more than 60 characters, including a transsexual cabbie. "If you're going to be politically incorrect, you have to be obscenely politically incorrect," quips Lee. This is, after all, the nation that gave us Benny Hill.

BBC America is betting that the premiere this spring of epic fantasy Gormenghast, a four-part adaptation of Mervyn Peake's best-selling classic and starring Ian Richardson, Christopher Lee, and Stephen Fry, will do for American audiences what another British import, Harry Potter, did for millions of children: Enchant.

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