My Turn

Herb Scannell's 5-Year Plan at BBC America

3/23/2011 9:13 PM

Herb Scannell, overseer of BBC America among other BBC properties in the U.S., says the network is ready to spend the coin needed to increase ratings, diversify the program mix and generally capitalize on a moment in which “British culture is it culture.”

“I feel we’re in a good place,” Scannell, the former MTV Networks executive named BBC Worldwide America president last June, said this week. “We have a good base of an audience … There is an opportunity if we move the needle, so to speak.”Herb Scannell

The channel’s ad-sales team has sold it thus far on upscale viewer demographics, such as percentage of homes with household income above $100,000.  Scannell wants to “keep that loyal audience, with the profile and psychographics, and get more.”

To break out of its ratings neighborhood — a primetime average of 0.1 or 161,000 viewers in 2010, near Style Network and Military Channel, according to Nielsen — Scannell said the BBC is willing to spend money on new shows and acquisitions. “In the next five years we are going to triple our program budgets. When I came here, I was very clear that if we want to play, we had to play. And that meant increasing the investment.”

“The investment will manifest in two ways,” he said. “We’re going to look at 4-6 unscripted shows per year. … And then beginning next summer, and then subsequent years, we’ll do a full-out drama, one to two every year.”

The new shows will come from BBC Worldwide Productions, under Jane Tranter in Los Angeles; from a variety of producers in Hollywood (”we are an open shop”); and from independent producers in the United Kingdom, in addition to the BBC shows that have been the network’s stock in trade, Scannell said.

Shows will be sized up by what Scannell called an IQ filter. The I stands for intelligence, innovation and irreverence, or what the Brits call cheek.

“We have traditionally been a place that has introduced talent,” Scannell said in an interview in a banquette booth in BBCWA’s posh new offices on Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan.”Going forward, we are going to be a place that nurtures, develops and makes shows with talent. I want us to be a safe landing place for people coming from the other side of the pond that want to break into the American television market.”

On the unscripted side, he’d like to develop shows that work with BBC America staples Top Gear (the original, not the BBC-produced version that has been renewed for a second season on History) and Gordon Ramsay’s Ramsay’s Best Restaurant, starting out. He wants them to be centered on personalities, someone who’s an expert in his or her field and has some of that irreverence, “a bit of swagger.”

As for dramas, a model he cited is Luther, the edgy Idris Elba cop show (see its tense opening moments here): BBCA is co-producing its second season. The shows will “be of substantial budget,” he said, and can be made either in the United States or the United Kingdom. “You can get a really quality drama for $1-million plus” over there, he said.

Drama series orders would start with 10-13 episodes, he said, not the 3-6 episodes more common in Britain.

Scannell said he’d like to see comedies along the lines of Whose Line Is It, Anyway?, with a talent roster that can come in and out.

Another priority is growing the BBC World News channel, which recently became the home of the former BBC America nightly news show, BBC World News America. The channel is distributed by Cablevision Systems, Cox and Verizon FiOS, and Scannell said he will be “aggressively” pitching it to more cable operators.

In addition to its being a global news channel that fills a niche at a time of intense global news, Scannell said its being pitched as an alternative to more ideological U.S. news channels. “We’re going to be a good deal for a cable operator. We’re a world news service. Our price is going to be a lot different than some of the incumbent news networks.”

And, of course, there’s the upcoming royal wedding to draw attention to the channel, both for its exclusive right to BBC One’s feed (to see what the Brits are seeing) and for related programming such as an original production, Royally Mad, centered on five “royally-mad” Americans going over for William and Kate’s big day.

“I think we are the home of the royal wedding,” Scannell said.

Cheek? Maybe. But a little royal madness might take a network a long way.