BBC America taps new U.S. chief

Broadening distribution will be key for Scannell

Herb Scannell is looking to emphasize the “America” in “BBC Worldwide America.”

Scannell, who was named president of the Beeb’s U.S. operations on Wednesday, said he’ll initially focus on expanding the domain of flagship cabler BBC America.

That includes producing more original fare for the channel right here in the U.S. BBC America has already announced plans to run a U.S. version of the British cooking hit “Come Dine With Me.”

“I would assume (BBC America) has more original shows launching than any other channel in cable TV,” Scannell said. “That’s just by nature, given the number of shows coming from the BBC that haven’t aired here in the States. I do have an interest in supplementing that with made-in-America shows that kind of have the three major attributes that make a BBC show: That they’re smart, innovative and irreverent. Those are the key building blocks to think about programming wise and in branding.”

Scannell said he’d also like to focus on broadening BBC America’s distribution. Channel is in 67 million homes, putting it in the middle leagues of cable nets; by comparison, at least 25 cable nets have already (or are about to) hit the 100 million mark.

“I think it’s one of the most affluent of cable audiences in the U.S.,” Scannell said. “There’s a lot of opportunity to grow it as well … I like the portfolio of the businesses they have in the states, I think they’re all good beachheads for further growth.”

Scannell takes the top post, heading up the BBC’s U.S. operations, immediately, and fills the void left by Garth Ancier, who ankled the post at the end of March. He most recently co-founded Next New Networks, where he served as CEO until 2008.

Scannell faces some of the same challenges his predecessors did: In a crowded marketplace, it’s tough to secure significant additional distribution — which is why BBC Worldwide America has so far not been able to move forward with plans to launch additional channels, such as BBC World News (seen in much of the world) and preschool-centric CBeebies.

Scannell’s Nickelodeon background will come in handy should the BBC proceed with previously announced plans to launch CBeebies to the U.S. market.

But Scannell, who helped launch Nickelodeon’s preschool channel Noggin (now known as Nick Jr.), said it was too soon to tell where those plans stood. BBC may want to reassess CBeebies’ prospects in the U.S. now that Disney plans to turn SoapNet into the 24-hour preschool-targeted Disney Junior.

Besides BBC America, Scannell will oversee BBC Worldwide Productions, in the U.S., and sales and distribution. He’ll also sit on BBC Worldwide’s executive board.

“Herb has a tremendous track record of success in developing and extending innovative brands across multiple platforms, which is precisely the experience needed to help build the next phase for BBC Worldwide in the U.S.,” said BBC Worldwide topper John Smith. “Our American businesses have delivered significant successes in recent years — not the least record ratings for flagship shows ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and ‘Doctor Who’ in the past month — and we believe Herb is the right person to leverage this success and build a power brand for the BBC in the U.S.”

On the production side, Scannell will work closely with BBC Worldwide’s Los Angeles-based exec VP Jane Tranter. Scannell plans to fly to L.A. next week to meet with her and discuss the production operation — including his goal of producing more made-in-America fare for BBC America.

“You have a production business based in L.A. that has the No. 1 program in America with ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ which is not a bad place to be,” Scannell said.

The exec will be based in New York, but expects to spend a chunk of time in London.

As vice chairman of MTV Networks and president of Nickelodeon Networks, Scannell oversaw all creative and business operations for a portfolio of brands including Nickelodeon, TV Land and Spike TV.

Scannell also expanded Nickelodeon’s brand into feature films, consumer products, magazines, online, live theatrical shows and an L.A.-based animation studio.

Under Ancier, BBC America cultivated hits such as “Torchwood,” “Top Gear” and “Primeval.” Revenues grew by 39% after ad sales moved inhouse. Ancier remains a non-executive board member at BBC Worldwide America.

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