BBC America Signs Time Warner, Comcast

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BBC America, which recently jockeyed with Comedy Central for bragging rights to the Absolutely Fabulous follow-up series Mirrorball, has signed digital distribution deals with Time Warner Cable and Comcast Corp., officials said last week.

The network, distribution of which is handled by Discovery Networks U.S., will be available to current Time Warner digital subscribers within the next six months, and it will be included in all of the MSO's future digital launches around the country. Comcast will carry BBC America on its digital-basic platform.

"We believe [BBC America] offers the kind of unique, high-quality programming that will have great appeal for our digital-cable subscribers," Time Warner senior vice president of programming Fred Dressler said in a prepared statement.

BBC America-which launched in March 1998, and which brings U.S. viewers British Broadcasting Corp. hits-has been struggling to get carriage. It is currently in 13 million homes and, with its latest affiliation deals, it is projected to be in 30 million in the next three years-ahead of its original 25 million target for that time period-according to officials.

In addition to cable, BBC America also has carriage deals with DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network, as well as with AT & T Broadband for its Headend in the Sky platform.

"We now have the top two DBS [direct-broadcast satellite] companies and the top three cable operators," BBC America chief operating officer Paul Lee said. "That's a great base to build a mainstream U.S. channel."

Earlier this month, BBC America got into an unusual run-in with Comedy over Mirrorball, a series that is being co-produced by the BBC and the U.S. cable channel.

Comedy and its new general manager, Bill Hilary, himself a BBC veteran, expected to make the first announcement about the series, which features the cast and creative team of Ab Fab, at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Pasadena, Calif.

Instead, BBC America beat Comedy to the punch by putting out a press release on Mirrorball several days before Comedy's TCA session.

Mirrorball, featuring Ab Fab actresses Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, will debut on the BBC in the United Kingdom, with its pilot then having its U.S. premiere on BBC America in 2001.

After that, Comedy, which made Ab Fab a cult hit in the States, will have the first window on the Mirrorball series on American television, with the show joining its lineup next summer.

According to Lee, after Comedy's play, BBC America will get the second U.S. window on Mirrorball episodes.

"We take it three months after [Comedy] airs the show initially," Lee said, adding that Comedy gets the Mirrorball pilot three months after BBC America premieres it.

BBC America made much ado about the fact that it was debuting the pilot, but its press release failed to mention the fact that Comedy has the first U.S. rights to air the rest of the show next year.

In turn, Comedy's press release on Mirrorball didn't note that BBC America would debut the show's pilot in the States. Nor was that mentioned at Comedy's TCA session.

All Hilary said was, "Can I just say now that we do have the first window [on American television] on this? It is being shown on Comedy Central first, despite certain leaks recently."

There is reportedly some bad blood between Comedy Central and BBC America over The League of Gentlemen, a quirky series about a bizarre British village that debuted on BBC America-and that still airs on the channel Fridays-that is now also airing on Comedy Monday in primetime.

Six-episode series Mirrorball will chronicle the story of Vivienne, played by Saunders, and Jackie, played by Lumley, who are two actresses past their prime in the midst of London's West End theater scene.

"In truly Ab Fab style, it is the same cast, but a very different setting," Hilary said. "They're all budding actors and actresses in the British theater, and it's very funny."

In addition to Mirrorball, Comedy unveiled another new original series at the TCA, TV Funhouse, from Saturday Night Live's Robert Smigel.

Smigel, who created Saturday Night Live shorts "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" and "X-Presidents," is developing TV Funhouse for Comedy.

TV Funhouse will feature new shorts and animation created exclusively for Comedy, as well as existing shorts from the Saturday Night Live and Universal libraries.

Comedy has ordered 10 episodes of the half-hour series, which will include live action, animation and puppets. TV Funhouse is slated to premiere in the fall.

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