A month before the hoopla, Rome Hartman had little doubt the political conventions would offer plenty of drama. The global fascination with Barack Obama's candidacy and John McCain's personal story practically ensured it. But then came the sort of journalist's nirvana that no one anticipated.
“Little did I know we would have a dynamic named Sarah Palin,” says Hartman, the executive producer of BBC World News America.
The magnetic governor of Alaska has been the subject of endless fascination in the British press. And she's received plenty of coverage on BBC America's weeknight newscast—so much so that anchor Matt Frei says, “We're having to sort of pinch ourselves.”
That's partly due to the heightened viewer interest, but it also serves as a reminder not to get caught up in the celebrity aspect. “She's the sexy news material at the moment,” says Frei, a 22-year BBC veteran.
At least that was the case before the financial meltdown and last week's controversy over the first presidential debate. But the debate about the debate emphasizes Frei's point that the road to the White House has multiple angles—something he had to remind the staff about at the height of the Palin phenomenon. “Let's not just talk about her; let's talk about Barack Obama, and let's talk about John McCain,” Frei says. “On both sides of the aisle, it's fascinating—and certainly abroad, people are fully engaged.”
And that points to the tightrope mission of World News America, which celebrates its first-year anniversary Oct. 1. The Washington-based newscast airs live weeknights at 7 p.m. and then repeats at 10 p.m. The show also airs on the BBC World News channel globally and the 24-hour news network in the United Kingdom.
The balancing act comes with the show carrying the BBC brand with all its international equity and flavor, but targeting Americans. Hartman, known in part for his time producing the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric, is charged with finding that sweet spot, along with giving the newscast a certain detachment that's distinct from its cable and network competition.
“We're always bringing an outsider's perspective,” says Katty Kay, the show's Washington correspondent and former reporter in Zimbabwe and Tokyo. “There is a way that we see American news in the context of our experience in other countries—how America fits into global politics.”
According to anchor Frei, the show carries a “BBC-nurtured tradition of storytelling” and presents domestic news “in a slightly arch British way.” Often, a slight bemusement at American life (politics or otherwise) can be detected in his inflection or comments, though he and Hartman maintain that the network takes even-handedness very seriously.
And while there may be a perception that the BBC takes a left-of-center approach, Washington correspondent Kay says, “We've been called the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation as often as we have the Bush Broadcasting Corporation.”
Now in some 62 million homes, BBC America has been investing significantly in the newscast, hoping the interest in its election coverage will help strengthen the show's appeal. The network aired World News America live each night from both the Democratic and Republican conventions, and has hired Ted Koppel as an analyst. A new set debuts this week, while the broadcast is expected to be in HD starting some time next year.
According to one promo, World News America offers “a unique accent,” but it has ratings have been muted. In July, the 7 p.m. edition averaged some 28,000 viewers in the adult 25-to-54 demo, though with convention coverage, that increased by 18% in August.
“While the viewership numbers aren't huge, obviously we're hopeful that as we get further into it—now that we're at the one-year mark—that they'll continue to grow,” says Garth Ancier, president of BBC Worldwide America. Ancier made the decision to launch the show and hired Hartman soon after he took over in early 2007.
Ancier says that the show is pulling in the highest CPMs in the network's 10-year history and draws an upscale audience—as well as a younger one, perhaps due to some frustration with the traditional newscasts and a search for an alternative.
He says he's optimistic that a rearrangement in the BBC's relationship with PBS stations, where it offers a nightly half-hour broadcast, will differentiate the BBC America product and boost its tune-in. The BBC has switched PBS distributors to Los Angeles' KCET. And it has cut deals preventing stations from airing the PBS program in the 7 p.m. hour, where it now competes with World News America in some major markets.
Separately, Frei will no longer be the anchor of the PBS version, and will appear exclusively on BBC America. “We've definitely had a divided audience, there's no question,” Ancier says.
World News America has the advantage of being able to call on the BBC's vast resources, which include some 250 correspondents around the globe who can offer insight into how the election is being perceived elsewhere. The day after Obama became the presumptive nominee, the newscast had reports from both Kansas and Kenya (the places Obama's parents were from), as well as brief vignettes from capitals such as Moscow and New Delhi.
Beyond the election, the BBC's global reach can also provide extraordinary coverage on international affairs, a possible trump card against the competition. On the second night of the recent crisis in Georgia, World News America was interviewing the country's president live from his bunker as Russian bombers flew overhead.
During the Wall Street crisis, the network offered an expanded focus on its global impact, with pieces from London, an underappreciated financial capital among Americans, as well as a jittery Moscow and Mumbai.
Hartman, there from the beginning, says BBC America's global access allows it to provide coverage that most other networks, save perhaps CNN, have largely shunned. The goal is “to throw a window open to the world for an American audience” that can't “find smart and sophisticated” international coverage elsewhere.
Andrew Tyndall, who monitors newscasts for the Tyndall Report, says World News America provides solid counterprogramming to the cable news networks, with their heavy doses of analysis and opinion. Still, he's not convinced an American-aimed BBC broadcast is something viewers are seeking, arguing they prefer to essentially eavesdrop on what viewers in the U.K. are watching.
“They don't need to do a special edition for Americans,” he says. “There's enough of an audience who want a global outlook who'd be quite happy to have what the BBC does.”
Ancier disagrees with that strategy. “We wanted to reclaim in the U.S. a few of the program genres that the BBC is good at,” he says. “In the U.K., the BBC is sort of all things from cradle to grave for citizens, but in the U.S. it is viewed more as a news source.”