BBC America (BBCA) sells itself as a destination for quality news and drama. But the network also walks an interesting tightrope: being British while appealing to distinctly American tastes.
Its signature newscast, BBC World News America, differs from what American audiences are used to in its comprehensive coverage of world events. It won a Peabody for a series about a Chinese farming village obliterated for industrial expansion.
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 debuts a version of the hit U.K. drama Life on Mars, which first aired on BBC America. NBC is now developing an adaptation of 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 talks to B&C's Marisa Guthrie about Britz, The CW's problems and the perils facing broadcast programmers.
Broadcast television seems to be slumping, while cable is on the rise—getting ratings (Lifetime's Army Wives) and buzz (AMC's Mad Men). Are we at the crossroad of broadcast television dominance?
I think we've been there for a couple 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 a year and the networks do 22 a 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.
Britz 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?
I'm not sure. You look at that Internet smear campaign against Barack Obama. 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 Muslims 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 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 U.S.
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?
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 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 that CW is targeting than CW can.
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.
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 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.