Home-grown content beamed to Brits
LONDON — An American TV network is preparing to take on the Brits at what the Brits do best — public broadcasting.On Nov. 1, PBS will launch its first channel outside the U.S. on satcaster BSkyB, ironically, an aggressive commercial operator. Another irony is that the U.S. pubcaster and its member affiliates rely heavily on British imports for programming. The American web comes into a market dominated by the BBC, and commercials webs that must also deliver public service programming. Negotiations for carriage on cabler Virgin Media are expected to be concluded soon. “U.K. audiences already enjoy the best of American drama and comedy,” explains Richard Kingsbury, the Brit who is general manager of PBS U.K. “PBS will bring the best of American history, science, music, current affairs, arts and culture. It is the last great TV archive to be opened up to U.K. viewers.” Kingsbury, who comes from a marketing background, is an experienced hand at getting new channels off the ground. During an eight-year stint at UKTV, then owned jointly by the BBC and Virgin Media, he launched pay channels specializing in history, food and drama. He and his three full-time colleagues at PBS U.K. — the rest of the team is employed as freelancers — will likely find their work cut out for them in attempting to establish PBS in such a crowded and competitive market. BBC4 and More4 already provide a hefty chuck of the kind of thinking person’s TV that PBS specializes in. Moreover, the U.K. enjoys a global reputation for production of high-end documentaries. Part of the idea behind the British PBS channel is that since Brits have been addicted for decades to imported shows — from “Dallas” to “Desperate Housewives” — they will come to love such fare as PBS science strand “Nova” or public affairs show “Frontline.” Yet paradoxically, while PBS in the U.S. is a not-for-profit organization famous for its pledge drives, the U.K. upstart is avowedly commercial; unlike the U.S. channel, commercial breaks will be broadcast during the shows. PBS PR and marketing head Rebecca Edwards says that the advertising won’t change the content of the shows. “We have to stay true to the brand, its heritage and the quality that is associated with that,” she says. Ad sales are being handled by Channel 4, which has provided a U.K. showcase for PBS’ best-known show, “Sesame Street.” But as uncertainty mounts regarding the strength of the TV advertising market in what is a fragile economy, Kingsbury isn’t worried about the business model. “We’ve worked on channels of this sort of size before, so we know how to get value for money and how to max out the revenues and keep costs under control,” he says. “The idea is to attract upscale, viewers (who generally don’t watch a great deal of TV) and extract a premium for that.” The U.K. PBS is run as a joint venture between Canadian venture philanthropist David Lyons, who made his fortune in gas and oil, and PBS Distribution, the company set up in 2007 by WGBH, the Boston PBS member and the network’s chief producer of programming, and PBS. The scale of the investment is undisclosed, but since Lyons owns international rights to most of PBS’ catalog, that key cost can be stricken from the P&L statement. In success, it aims to funnel some of its profit back to the U.S. pubcaster and its 360 affiliates. The launch lineup looks strong and may, eventually, give the BBC and Channel 4 a run for their money. Weekday evenings revolve around “Nova,” kicking off at 7:50 p.m., “Frontline,” at 9 p.m., followed by history strand “American Experience” at 10:05 p.m. “PBS Newshour” airs at 11:15 p.m. Programs have not been cut in order to fit the slots. PBS topper Paula Kerger has said she wants the Brits to share “another perspective on the United States separate from Hollywood,” and in that context “Newshour” could prove especially valuable, offering an alternative to CNN and Fox News. Ken Burns’ latest docu, the five-part “Prohibition,” will bow on launch night, airing at 10:05. Daytime, meanwhile, is skewed toward lifestyle fare, led by the U.S. version of Brit stalwart “Antiques Roadshow.” PBS aims to deliver what commercial competitors Discovery and History — now successful in the unscripted space — have been moving away from: straightforward factual shows dealing with science, nature, history and arts. Still, PBS is facing a tough market already populated by dozens of other channels already aimed at viewers who prefer docs to drama. “We will cherrypick,” says Kingsbury. “There is a filter there that says, ‘Will this be of interest to U.K. audiences?'”
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