BBC America has become a destination for quality news and drama. The network’s newscast, BBC World News America, won a Peabody Award for a multipart series about a tiny Chinese farming village systematically obliterated in the name of economic and industrial expansion.
But the network also walks a very interesting tightrope. On the one hand, it is decidedly British, and in November, it will air Peter Kosminsky’s controversial Britz, a four-hour drama about the divergent paths taken by British Muslim siblings.
But it has also become a seeding ground for U.S. dramas. This fall, ABC will debut a new version of hit U.K. drama Life on Mars, which first aired on BBC America. And NBC is now developing an adaptation BBCA's romantic comedy, Gavin & Stacey.Garth Ancier, president of BBC Worldwide America, was a broadcast programmer previously at Fox, NBC and The WB. Ancier spoke with B&C’s Marisa Guthrie about Britz, The CW's problems and the perils facing broadcast programmers.
Q: Broadcast television seems to be slumping, while cable is on the rise
getting ratings (Lifetime Television’s
) and buzz (AMC’s
). Are we at the crossroad of broadcast-television dominance?
A: I think we’ve been there for a couple of years, actually. The cable series tend to take bigger swings and bigger risks than the shows you see on broadcast. In cable, they’re doing 13 episodes per year, and the networks do 22 per year. When you’re doing 13, you can probably make those 13 a little more interesting and special. In British television, sixes and 13s are a little more common. The two markets are merging in a very interesting way. You talk about some of these amazing shows that have been on British television, like Life on Mars, etc., again, they’re making short orders, so you can really craft those shows in a different way than when you’re under the pressure of making 22 episodes of anything other than what the Brits call a "shiny floor show" like American Idol.
explores homegrown terrorism, a subject Britons confronted in 2005 with the “7/7” London bombings. How do you think it will play to American audiences?
A: I’m not sure. You look at that Internet smear campaign against [Sen.] Barack Obama [D-Ill.]: No one’s talking about it, which is when you really want to deal with something in a dramatic form. There is a perception of Muslim as terrorists in the United States and Britain. No one says it, but there is a suspicion. And this deals with [those prejudices]. I’ve always felt that when TV tackles that kind of thing, it’s some of the best TV. [Britz] deals with a very real split in the Muslim community that does resonate [in England] and in the United States.
Q: The CW, which two years ago was born from UPN and The WB, where you used to work, is struggling to find its footing. What would you do?
A: It’s very hard to step into anybody’s shoes. In every programming job I’ve been in since the early days of Fox, I try to look for things that are different from what the other networks are doing. It’s hard because you’re in a country with 200 channels, and being a broadcast station isn’t as much of an advantage as it was 10 years ago. And in some ways, I could actually argue that it’s a bit of a disadvantage because you have to steer clear of offending almost anyone given the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] oversight. That’s made it harder for even a conservative network. You start second-guessing yourself more than you would normally. MTV can do an awful lot more to target the age group CW is targeting than CW can.
Q: If you watch broadcast television live today, it's painful because of the incredible commercial load. It’s almost as if they’re trying to alienate the live audience.
A: I don’t think the commercial load has increased at many of the networks. BBC America, for example, has a lower commercial load than most networks, partially because our shows are longer. I think what’s happening is the American public, between the Internet and streaming and the DVR [digital-video recorder] and skipping commercials, is becoming less tolerant of long breaks. And that’s what’s really happening. What seemed normal to you five years ago is starting to seem like long breaks now.
Q: What do you think of the partisan talking heads currently populating cable news?
A: Look, it’s great entertainment. I’m not sure it’s news. There was a period there during the real drama between Obama and [Sen.] Hillary Clinton [D-N.Y.] where you were just glued to the set because is was the best serial drama on television: the twists and turns and the backstabbing and the nastiness. Doing talking heads for five hours, while I find it very amusing, it’s not really a big world view. One of the things I found so interesting was that the night Tim Russert died -- obviously, everyone in American media has great affection for Tim Russert -- but that same night, the flooding was going on in Iowa. And if you watched the news, you certainly knew that Tim Russert died, but you probably were not getting a very good sense of what was going on in Iowa. There’s such a temptation in news to ride one story that I felt like all of the people in Iowa were being shunted aside. The BBC wouldn’t have done that and we didn’t do it. There are different styles between what the BBC does and what others do.
Q: Going forward, how will your newscast, BBC World News America, continue to cover the election?
A:BBC News is talking about doing a bus tour around America between the conventions and the election. The network is really taking quite an interest in this election partially because of [the BBC World News America] broadcast, but partly because it’s such a compelling election for the rest of the world. I was at a dinner party with a number of Brits the other day and someone reminded them, when all of the talk went to American politics, that none of the Brits around the table could actually vote. But they have tremendous interest in the election because the choice for the American president impacts their lives so dramatically that they really are very articulate on the candidates and the positions and how it all adds up. And it is not just all pro-Obama -- it goes back and forth in very interesting ways. Clearly, we feel that BBC World News is an alternative to what you’re going to see on CNN or MSNBC. We really view the night before [the primaries] and the night after as more important. An American [viewer] is going to probably tune to CNN or MSNBC on the actual night because they’ve got the gizmos; they’ve got the giant staff. But if you want context, that’s not really what the American networks do best. [World News America executive producer] Rome [Hartman] believes that we do context better; and pulling the story together after the fact and prepping for the story before the fact. So we’re not trying to compete with John King and his magic map. By the way, I’d love to have it. But I just don’t think it’s really our strength.
Q: Back to The CW, are you saying it's hamstrung as a broadcast network and it doesn’t have the wiggle room of the lower ratings expectations of a cable network?
A: You still have to make original shows, and you still have to program them and get enough viewers and advertisers there to afford to make the shows. The most interesting thing I see happening right now in the landscape is that shows are premiering on cable and now taking their second window on broadcast. Yes, there was a writers' strike this year. But you have Monk on NBC and Dexter on CBS. You may very well see The Closer take its first run on TNT and its second run on a broadcast network because that might be a better economic formula than the other way around.
Q: What makes that economic model feasible?
A: Cable television is, at the end of the day, pay television. In cable, while you’re not thrilled when people DVR it, it’s pay television. They’re paying their cable bill and a couple of cents are going to us. So if they skip the commercials, that’s part of the deal, because at the end of the day, you want that person who pays their cable bill to feel like they got something special for paying for programming, as well as the cable service. And the broadcast networks don’t have that second revenue stream to play with.
Q: They’re trying to figure out how to get a second revenue stream by streaming episodes online.
A: And while that’s certainly laudable, I don’t think anyone thinks you can make nearly as much on a stream with a couple of 15- or 30-second commercials.
Q: The advertising model is being upended, and DVR penetration is only going to increase. How is the economic model of broadcast television sustainable in this environment?
A: Uh, I’m not that smart. I’m sorry. I feel their pain when I look at people running networks today.