The British are coming, the British are coming. Two
centuries after the War for Independence, the British are invading again, but it remains
to be seen whether the latest troops -- BBC America -- fare better on the highly
competitive battlefield known as the cable industry than the redcoats did in the colonies.
The British Broadcasting Corp. is a public television
network in Great Britain, but BBC America will be a commercial venture showing ads and
pouring its profits back into the parent company. The network has struck a deal with
Discovery Networks, in which the BBC owns and controls BBC America, but Discovery handles
domestic ad and affiliate sales.
The BBC is counting on Discovery's clout with
operators. Tele-Communications Inc., through its subsidiary, Liberty Media Group, owns
part of the network.
"Discovery's leverage [within the cable industry]
and the link to TCI are incredibly important to us," said Paul Lee, general manager
of BBC America. "We knew we were right to be arrogant about the quality of our
programming, but we also understood it was silly to think we know how the American
After three-quarters of a century in Great Britain, the BBC
has, on radio and television, established a reputation for excellence and innovation, both
in terms of entertainment and news programming. Globally, it has now sent BBC World and
BBC Prime into 56 million homes.
The BBC even has relatively strong name recognition in
America -- particularly among educated, upscale viewers -- since its shows have long been
seen on the Public Broadcasting Service, A&E and even Comedy Central.
"Based on the BBC programming's performances on
PBS and A&E, there is certainly a market for it," said Phil Laxar, senior vice
president of programming for MSO Jones Intercable Inc.
And BBC America's diverse programming -- which ranges
from the Scottish drama series The Crow Road and the Irish film The Precious
Blood to the English sketch comedy series Brilliant! -- was well received on
the recent press tour for critics. In the San Franciso Examiner, Tim Goodman called
the network "probably the hottest of the new cable channels."
However, it's one thing to have good buzz, it's
quite another to be widely available -- BBC America is still in fewer than half a million
homes, most through TCI's Headend in the Sky digital service.
And that's a long way from the network's goal of
25 million homes within five years. At this point, there's even a bit of disagreement
about what paths are most likely to open up.
"Digital is important," Lee acknowledged, but to
reach 25 million, he said, the network will have to make significant inroads in analog as
well. He said the fact that the BBC spends $1.5 billion a year on original programming
will persuade cable operators -- who are craving quality and quantity content these days
-- to provide them with channel space.
Bill Goodwyn, Discovery's senior vice president of
affiliate sales and marketing, maintained that cable systems are responding well to the
"We've only been marketing it since April but a
lot of operators are excited," said Goodwyn, adding that the network is seen as a way
to push cable penetration past 70 percent by attracting the "traditional
resisters," the light-viewing non-subscribers who may only watch PBS on television.
Because it is impossible to predict the future, with
technology changing so quickly, Goodwin said the BBC has to be flexible. But he believes
the vast majority of the network's homes will be digital.
"I'm very bullish on digital," he said,
noting that BBC America is the kind of network that will break through the channel clutter
that the digital world will create.
"The challenge in phase one is getting distributors to
understand what the network is --that takes a long time," he said, adding that while
BBC America will be in "well over a million homes by year's end," it takes
a year for most operators to add new analog channels to their systems.
Beyond that, however, Laxar is not as optimistic as the
Discovery and BBC folks. While the name BBC has a certain amount of clout, getting into 25
million homes within five years "would be a stretch," Laxar said.
He believes digital penetration "will take time to
work its way up to anything significant, and analog capacity will become even tighter with
the introduction of digital."
Operators warn that enticing programming is not always
enough, especially for a niche network. An attractive enough deal could prompt operators
to bump other networks in favor of BBC America, but Laxar said the network "will have
to be very aggressive in their financial proposal" to cable operators.
If BBC America succeeds, it is safe to assume in this
increasingly fragmented television universe that someone else will suffer, one way or
For starters, the BBC's older hits will no longer be
seen on American networks. But executives at PBS and A&E seem unconcerned.
"We're not really anticipating much of a
change," said PBS spokesman Harry Forbes. Despite the common perception that the
network is heavily reliant on BBC reruns, he said an "amazingly low percentage"
of programming seen on public television comes from the BBC. Many British programs come
from other British producers like Granada Television.
Additionally, Forbes said, "we do and have done
business with many production companies that also work with the BBC," so PBS may deal
with them directly on co-productions, or buy the U.S. rights to individually produced
programs. (Forbes said it's too soon to say whether this could ultimately produce a
bidding war between PBS and BBC America or whether PBS would one day negotiate for a
second showing window -- after programs have run on BBC America.)
A&E spokesman Gary Morgenstein also said A&E's
programming will not be noticeably affected by the BBC's presence in America, since
it has drastically reduced its reliance on established BBC programming over the years.
"We've moved beyond that point," he said.
"Only 5 percent of our lineup is produced by or with the BBC and that number is
And big budget original co-productions between the BBC and
the American networks will continue occasionally, especially since BBC America reaches
such a small audience, both Morgenstein and Forbes say.
"PBS has 100 percent penetration," Forbes said.
"To the BBC, this is still a very attractive outlet for productions."
Overall, Morgenstein dismissed the notion of the newcomer
as a viable competitive threat.
"It's going to be primarily a digital network, so
the likelihood of it having broad appeal is very remote," he said.
PBS, however, is a bit more wary of the potential
competition. At the critics' press tour last month in Pasadena, Calif., PBS president
Ervin Duggan acknowledged that PBS's new $40 million investment in producing American
dramas by the likes of Langston Hughes and Willa Cather for Masterpiece Theater is
in part a response to the presence of BBC America.
But Lee stressed that the BBC does not want to undermine
public television in America.
"There's no rivalry," he said.
"We're very keen to support public service television in the States. We'll
always want to co-exist with PBS and you'll continue to see our dramas on Masterpiece
Theater. We are public service broadcasters in our hearts."
Discovery is also a 50-50 partner with the BBC on Animal
Planet around the world. The networks are undertaking two other joint ventures: Discovery
is investing $100 million in the BBC's documentary productions, and the companies
will launch fact-based networks internationally.