Cable's British invasion

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Two years after announcing a global alliance with Discovery Communications, the British Broadcasting Co. has built a base in the U.S. to deploy TV programming, publishing and Internet services.

It could be a case of culture shock for American viewers.

But U.S. media buyers wonder if the import from the U.K. can find a profitable home in the land of megamedia giants such as Walt Disney Co., Viacom, News Corp. and AOL Time Warner.

BBC believes the answer depends on its efforts to build brand awareness here, all the time capitalizing on the U.S. cable market's need for distinctive, high-quality programming.

LEARN FROM SCRATCH

"In the U.K., everybody knows the BBC," says Peter Phippen, president of BBC Worldwide Americas. "While people have heard of the BBC here, nonetheless, we're very small relative to the media conglomerates. You have to learn from scratch what it's like to be a start-up business."

This particular start-up has revenues of $800 million, which Mr. Phippen estimates will double within the next five years. BBC is developing a range of ventures, from the BBC America TV channel, now in 11 million digital TV homes to co-productions with Discovery Networks and Public Broadcasting Service. BBC is also active in various licensing and merchandising deals, such as for "Teletubbies" paraphernalia; there is also a raft of books and videos.

As part of a brand-building effort to promote BBC America, and BBC content overall, Mr. Phippen is moving into two American media markets where the BBC in the U.K. has done quite well: magazines and the Internet.

On the print side, BBC announced a joint venture earlier this year with Veronis Suhler, the New York media merchant bank. Capitalized at $100 million, the venture is seeking to acquire U.S. magazines similar to the gardening, cooking, family and lifestyle titles owned by the BBC in the U.K.

On the Internet, the parent company's BBC.co.uk Web site is already among the top 15 news sites measured by page views, according to PCData Online. A sister site, beeb.com, is a popular commercial destination.

TAILORED CONTENT

But the executive says the master plan is to relaunch a global BBC Web site, with content tailored to particular regions, starting with the U.S.

"We will launch that properly within the next year as a major content, entertainment and commerce site for the American market," says Mr. Phippen.

BBC is an arm of the British government and funded by British citizens, but lacks a publicly traded stock to leverage mergers and acquisitions.

Privatizing part of the BBC, specifically its worldwide operations, has been proposed, but there is no clear signal from London about such a deal.

In the U.S., meanwhile, at least one media analyst thinks the BBC may have waited too long to make its move, particularly where its BBC America cable channel is concerned.

"I think they're in the market way too late," says Larry Gerbrandt, senior VP with consultancy Paul Kagan Associates. "The time to have established brand names in this market was in the 1980s. It was very difficult to do it into the 1990s. Increasingly, you wind up on a digital tier. It's going to take them a long time to break through in any meaningful way."

Mr. Gerbrandt cites 25 million TV households as a critical mass, which happens to be the target number BBC America hopes to hit in 2003, five years after launch.

Even that level of success requires a phenomenal push to break through the clubby confines of U.S. programming forces, dominated by interlocked cable and broadcast ownership.

Bob Igiel, president of Media Edge, the New York-based media buying arm of Young & Rubicam, expresses cautious optimism about BBC America's prospects for success: "If they continue to program it right, showing the best of the BBC and the world service news, I think that will be appealing." Still, he adds: ". . . it's got a way to go to become of real interest in terms of advertisers."

EXPERIENCED WITH TASTES

BBC replies to skeptics that it has years of experience with U.S. tastes from exporting the likes of "Masterpiece Theater" through ventures with PBS and A&E. BBC also has an abundance of original programming, funded by the BBC mother ship.

Examples of BBC America programming include "Changing Rooms," "Keeping Up Appearances," "As Time Goes By," and "Ruby's American Pie," starring U.K. irreverent talk-show host Ruby Wax.

"We treat [BBC] as part of our portfolio networks, another horse in our stable," says Todd Siegel, VP-ad sales for Discovery Networks with responsibility for BBC America. "It's much more a broad-based network, in the vein of USA [Networks], but with an upscale profile."

U.K.-originating companies targeting the U.S. market, such as Jaguar Cars North America and British Airways, are natural advertisers on the channel. Mr. Siegel says that major American advertisers signed on when they learned that. For example, the viewer demographics for BBC America comedies are similar to that of Comedy Central, and the demographics for the channel's newscasts mirror those of CNN.

DISCOVERY'S ROLE

BBC America, which runs about eight minutes of commercial advertising per hour, might have made the case for its own viewer demographics, but Discovery's credibility and relationships in the business world were crucial to BBC's success so far.

"Without Discovery, I don't think we would have walked straight through the door to the major advertisers in America," says Paul Lee, general manager of BBC America. "You can't wander into the offices at General Motors [Corp.] unless you're part of the family."

The family tie was forged two years ago when Discovery and the BBC announced a broad partnership that included joint programming ventures, international distribution of Discovery's "Animal Planet," Discovery access to the BBC library and the U.S. launch of BBC America.

"They had compelling product," says Carolyn Crawford, VP-programming for MediaOne, adding: "Discovery has a very strong sales force domestically."

Yet Discovery hasn't been able to crack BBC America onto the basic, and jam-packed, analog cable service that reaches 78 million U.S. homes. Instead, BBC America is finding a home on the separately priced digital tiers that currently reach a fraction of that mass market.

MediaOne, for example, serves 5 million homes nationwide, yet its digital cable service is currently available in less than 2% of those homes.

Even digital deployment is no guarantee of carriage for BBC America. Recently, Time Warner picked up six Discovery-owned channels for its digital TV service rolling out to 100,000 subscribers in Queens, New York, but snubbed BBC America and several other channel hopefuls, including Oxygen Media and Home & Garden TV.

Where BBC America is available, the reviews have generally been effusive. One champion is David Bianculli , TV critic for the New York Daily News, who watches BBC America via satellite connection but cannot write about the programming often because the majority of his readers do not have access.

"I'm frustrated as hell that it's not in New York proper," he says. "You can't review stuff that people can't see. BBC America is an example of a channel that ought to be available widely."

Mr. Bianculli's praise stems from the slew of original, and often quirky, programming on BBC America, often culled from the BBC channels in Britain. The shows are sometimes described by U.S. critics in positive though derivative descriptions, such as " `Hamish Macbeth' is a Scottish `Northern Exposure.' "

Mr. Gerbrandt says the need for translation underscores another reason why BBC America may have difficulty punching through: "There have been British shows that have become cult hits, such as [`Monty Python's Flying Circus' and `Absolutely Fabulous,' " says Mr. Gerbrandt. "But the fact is, the British television hits have never made it mainstream in the U.S. unless they were recast as American."

He cites past American hit sitcoms, such as "All in the Family" and "Three's Company," plus the current ABC smash game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," as TV concepts that were born in Britain, but needed make-overs to become U.S. hits.

Paul Lee, general manager of BBC America, acknowledges the difference in taste and temperament between British and American audiences but claims that is exactly the reason that BBC America is an innovator and will succeed in building its brand across the spectrum of American media outlets.

"The more crazy our shows are, the more people seem to like it," says Mr. Lee. "We're bored of cookie-cutter television. We're here for a number of reasons: to be vibrant and innovative and drive consumers to other experiences, including videos, books and products. Our channel is a first move, but it's not our only move."

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