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Royal wedding fever already grips networks

BBC America leads numerous programming efforts

The April 29 marriage of England’s Prince William and Kate Middleton represents a programming opportunity for numerous TV networks, though perhaps none more so than BBC America.

The U.S. outlet for the broadcaster most identified with Britain is rapidly ramping up its programming in advance of the whole-world-is-watching wedding. The two-part special “Royally Mad,” hosted by Cat Deeley (“So You Think You Can Dance”), is BBC America’s latest project — though far from its last.

“I was actually in London at meetings in the BBC when the wedding was announced,” BBC Worldwide Americas g.m. of channels Perry Simon told Variety. “I have to say I kind of looked around at everyone in the room and said, ‘Boy, does this feel a natural for BBC America,’ especially given our newfound commitment to … increase (our) viewership and profile.”

BBC America certainly won’t be alone in trying to make hay with the royal romance. Another channel for whom the big event is tailor-made, Wedding Central, announced Thursday it would air the hourlong spec “William and Kate: The Wedding of the Century” as its first-ever original program, kicking off a week of royal-themed programming. WE TV and Wedding Central programming senior veep Elizabeth Doree called the special, which will feature interviews with royal wedding insiders, “a milestone” for the cabler, which already airs a weekly two-hour themed block, “Royal Wedding Saturdays,” focused on royal life and royal weddings in general.

On the scripted side, Lifetime is moving forward with telepic “William and Kate,” which tells the story of how the romance of the engaged couple began. Nico Evers-Swindell has been cast as William, with the Kate role not yet filled. Ben Cross will play Prince Charles, while Mark Rosman will direct a script from Nancey Silvers; Frank Konigsberg exec produces.

Nevertheless, BBC America has definitely taken the approach that its ship has come in. The channel has already aired two BBC World News specials about the royals, with a third scheduled for March.

The gears really ramp up in April with a slew of acquired documentaries on the monarchy as well as shortform bits using existing BBC America talent. In “Royally Mad,” airing April 12 and April 19, Deeley will act as London tour guide for a quartet of American royal wedding fanatics, leading up to a fairy-tale big finish. Lion Television, the shingle behind “Cash Cab,” will produce.

Simon said BBC America would probably turn “the majority of our schedule over” to the wedding a couple of days before it begins, leading into the live coverage of the event itself.

“I was at NBC back when Charles and Diana got engaged and had their wedding,” Simon said, “and I remember as a young programmer being stunned at the way America became so engrossed in this event and immersed in it. As I recall, it didn’t kind of hit its critical mass until just a few weeks leading up to it, but once the train got going, it was a pretty remarkable phenomenon to watch how many people were up all night — on the West Coast particularly, in the middle of the night — by the millions.”

That was back when cable was but a blip in American living rooms. The challenge for BBC America, which is seen in 68 million homes, is to see if it can use its moniker and budding Stateside reputation to claim status as the definitive royal wedding network, trumping the channels most U.S. viewers automatically turn to for global news.

“As much as other networks are going to be paying attention to it,” Simon said, “particularly in the last few days leading up to it, I think we can get a running start and just devote a greater proportion of our resources and our attention to it, because of who we are. We are the BBC in America; we look at ourselves as playing a special and unique role in bringing this event to the American public.”

And as Simon pointed out, this won’t be BBC America’s last chance to try to grab a piece of the global spotlight. “As soon as the Royal Wedding’s over, we start focusing on how we can make the most of the London Olympics,” Simon said.

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