Q&A: New BBC Worldwide Americas head Herb Scannell talks about making more shows in the U.S., and why he loves the word “wanker”

Former Nickelodeon topper Herb Scannell is looking to bring more “America” to BBC Worldwide America.

Scannell was named president of the division on Wednesday, filling the void left by Garth Ancier, who ankled the post at the end of March.

Scannell takes the top post, heading up the BBC’s U.S. operations, immediately. He’ll oversee channel BBC America, as well as BBC Worldwide Productions, BBC.com in the U.S., and sales and distribution.

In a quickie Q&A with Variety, Scannell discussed his mandate to produce more American-based shows for BBC America (which might not sit well with purist fans of the channel’s Brit focus). He also said it’s still too soon to tell whether the BBC will move forward with plans to launch a preschool channel here. And he admitted that the word “wanker” is, yes, pretty bloody funny.

The transcript:

VARIETY: What was it about BBC Worldwide Americas that appealed to you?
SCANNELL: The best thing is office hours. After this I’m going to a pub with the staff and be home by 6. I thought that was brilliant.

Beyond that, I actually think it’s an awesome company in so many ways. The thing about the BBC that’s most appealing to me is it’s probably the most innovative force in television. They just do things differently. And they always have. We see some brilliant things coming form the BBC, and to be associated with the thinking, the assets, the brand, is really appealing to me. I like the portfolio of the businesses they have in the states, I think they’re all good beachheads for further growth. The cable channel is in about 70 million homes, and I think it’s one of the most affluent of cable audiences in the U.S.

There’s a lot of opportunity to grow it as well. 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. And then you have home video business that has a deep catalog and now has a regular diet of retail blockbusters, with the “Planet Earth” series and “Life,” which came out yesterday. So retailers can expect big event kind of stuff from BBC video. And then you add int he digital offerings of the company. BBC.com is awesome; I was just made aware that they were among the top ten apps on the new iPad in the news category; so that all adds up to something pretty powerful. And there’s the promise of more, as these digital assets, the incredible library, it’s all at our fingertips.

BBC Worldwide Americas announced last year that it planned to introduce its preschool kids channel, CBeebies, here in the states. Given your background at Nickelodeon, that makes more sense now. What’s the plan for that channel?
I would say, having been in kids television, I have total respect for the kids programming from the BBC and CBeebies. I’ve got to pick up with the folks here to see what they’ve been thinking about. So for right now, it’s premature to say anything more than that, other than I know the quality of the programming and it’s special.

Do you see an opportunity to launch more channels, or is your priority to build out BBC America?
I do want to focus on BBC America as the flagship and work to get it to full distribution. Today, I would it assume has more original shows launching than any other channel in cable TV. 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.

You face a bit of a marketing challenge in BBC America, in that you’ve got to please several different audiences. There’s the Anglophiles, the reality TV fans, the news viewers. How do you service all viewers?
You’ve got to boil it down to things that are common. Perhaps news isn’t considered irreverent, but the other things: Smart and innovative are trademarks. You’ve seen other networks do smart things, like Bravo, which has been very smart in its program selections. And AMC has done some smart things in terms of their programming choices. I think there’s a value to having as your foundation programs that are smart and innovative.

What’s your take on the amount of news product that BBC America showcases? That was a pet project of Garth, who greatly expanded the U.S. news presence.
I do think it’s a great place to be int he media landscape right now. As a lot of news has gone from left to right, BBC sits in a true objective position. I have great respect for the institution and the way they report. I listen to them on the radio, and they are a voice of reason. My sense is it’s part of what makes the BBC great.

At one point, BBC Worldwide Americas hoped to get U.S. distribution for BBC World News channel, allowing BBC America to then focus solely on entertainment. Is that still a possibility down the road?
I got to get into all of that. There’s a slate of channels around the world, which is different than what we have here in America. I want to get into it and understand where we are.

And let’s talk about the production side. It’s still mostly focused on unscripted, what’s next for the division?
Jane Tranter in Los Angeles has set up an operation in Los Angeles to produce for multiple networks. I plan to go out and see her next week. She’s a master at understanding what’s special about the way the BBC has produced programming, which is what she has brought to her job now. I want to find out what’s on her slate and also I’m interested in doing some made in America shows, and will talk to her about that.

Will you be splitting your time between New York and London?
I’ll get to London as much as I can, I’ll be traveling.

Does your cable background mesh well with the kind of British programming model, such as the way they commission fewer episodes of a series over there?
I saw a producer once describe the choice between making a show for network and making drama for cable, and they expressed a preference for cable. The point they made was they’d rather make 13 good episodes than 22 overall episodes. It’s a different kind of mentality. And I found that interesting because that’s the old BBC formula, make lesser episodes, but make them great. Keep creators more engaged in the entire process, more auteur like. And that’s what you’re seeing with AMC and FX.

What kind of BBC programming have you watched in the past?
If you go back, I was a big fan of “The Avengers” as a kid. I was a big fan of “The Office” when it premiered in America, and I’ve been watching a lot of “Doctor Who” with my family and kids. I like the comedies — I like “The In-Betweeners.” Any show that says “wanker” I like. And then I was watching “Torchwood,” which is an example of the way the BBC thinks differently. To had a lead character be gay, that’s different from what might happen on an American network. And of course, “Dancing with the Stars.” Who would have thought ballroom dancing would become a top show in America? The answer is the BBC. They were successful in making it happen.

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