At first, the British Broadcasting Co. thought BBC America should be programmed like an American broadcast network, loaded up with odd-skewing comedies and mysteries. But the channel's chief, Paul Lee, sensed that American viewers wanted something different.
"You can always throw [Americans] curve balls," he says, drawing on a quintessentially American metaphor. "Audiences are hungry for change."
In fact, it has been the best of Britain's quirkier and edgy shows on BBC America, such as The Office
and So Graham Norton, that get BBC America noticed by viewers and critics.
Lee has been leading BBC America since its launch, starting as general manager and rising to CEO. In 1998, after years of selling its content to American channels, the BBC launched its own American service. It cut a deal with Discovery Networks to handle ad sales and distribution, and Lee, who was heading the U.K. and international entertainment channels, was dispatched to the U.S. He had traveled the U.S. as a student and later made a few documentaries here, but BBC America was his first executive posting in this country.
At first, Lee recalls, "the BBC America brand was pretty stuffy and close to PBS." If American devoured the best British music and movies, he wondered, why not British TV? Slowly, BBC America has jettisoned its stodgy image and programming and, as Lee says, "started taking some risks." That meant highbrow dramas and offbeat comedies and reality shows. "The more we did," he recalls, "the more people said yes."
Five years later, BBC America is almost a beacon for programming trends. Redecorating shows in prime time? It had the BBC's Changing Rooms
before TLC's Trading Spaces.
NBC's version Coupling
hasn't lived up to expectations, but the original, airing on BBC America, is well-received. And NBC plans to overhaul BBC America cult favorite The Office
for American viewers.
"Far from us taking notes on what big broadcast networks are doing," Lee says, "we're flattered they are watching us closely."
A graduate of Oxford University, the London native parlayed a degree in Russian and Portuguese into his first TV job, working on steamy novellas
in Brazil. He returned to the U.K. to join the BBC's training program, in which young hires rotate through the company. Lee hosted a sports radio show and worked for BBC News. Eventually, he settled down to make documentaries for the company's flagship documentary program, Arena. Several of his films got noticed in Britain, and he moved into scripted production, writing and directing made-for-TV movies—among them Oblomov, starring George Wendt of Cheers.
But producing kept Lee away from home and his two young sons for long stretches. In 1994, he took the reins of the BBC Prime, the company's 24-hour entertainment channel, his first executive job. Ten years later, he is running an American cable channel. BBC America has grown to 40 million homes and recently started getting Nielsen ratings, which are modest—around a 0.1 in prime time.
But BBC America gets a lot of buzz. When NBC was launching its version of Coupling, for example, BBC America worked its way into numerous stories. "We were in a lucky position," Lee says. "If Coupling
takes off, great, we get ratings. If it doesn't, people come rushing, saying they love your version better." Clearly, the latter has been the case.
So far, his channel isn't commissioning many originals, but BBC America isn't confined to BBC product. Lee imports the best of the BBC but also buys from British rival Channel 4 and from independent producers. Anything with a British accent can work.
Lee himself devours American TV, especially HBO's hits like The Sopranos
and Curb Your Enthusiasm. But he likes being an outsider in the TV industry here. Coming from abroad, he says, "gives you freedom to try new things. You get to throw in different ideas than people in this country have."