Starz original sci-fi skein “Torchwood: Miracle Day” heralds a world in which nobody dies, a world that would bring chaos — and the arrival of the show’s producer, BBC Worldwide Prods., as a player in U.S. scripted television.
Russell T. Davies’ “Torchwood,” tailored for the U.S. market, bowed July 8 and is the first of approximately two dozen scripted projects in development or greenlit for air on U.S. networks.
“The successful wrangling of that whole production has been very important,” says Jane Tranter, the former head of BBC Fiction who came to Los Angeles in 2009 to launch and run BBC Worldwide Prods.’ scripted division. “It’s our first one out of the gate … but you know how things work in the industry. Just as the first one’s out of the gate, the next one’s coming behind.”
Tranter says that BBC Worldwide Prods. has a mission to make programs that enhance and espouse BBC values, and she and her colleagues have found myriad ways to fulfill that directive.
BBC America is one logical distribution partner. The cabler — owned by BBC commercial arm BBC Worldwide but a separate entity to BBC Worldwide Prods., a distinction that casual observers sometimes miss — is not an automatic destination. In addition to Starz, BBC Worldwide Prods. has projects in place with FX, HBO, History, Lifetime, Showtime and several other American networks.
“We would never be a continuous supplier for any one network or cable company,” Tranter says. “What we would do is provide something different to the many, as opposed to provide huge volume to the few.”
Starz Media managing director Carmi Zlotnik says admiringly that BBC Worldwide’s sensibilities can’t be pigeonholed.
“What makes Jane really valuable as an executive is her ability to understand the brand strategies and strategic needs of different channels she’s working for, or pitching to, and (to) create programming that fits those needs,” Zlotnik says. “She’s a great student of each channel.”
In her previous role with the BBC, Tranter commissioned projects as diverse as Charles Dickens’ period piece “Little Dorrit” to modern-day comedy “Gavin and Stacey,” as well as the revival of the venerable “Doctor Who.” For “Dr. Who,” she brought in BBC Wales drama head Julie Gardner to exec-produce and Davies to write; that spawned the U.K. version of “Torchwood” (an anagram of “Doctor Who”), which also aired Stateside.
Starz’s “Torchwood: Miracle Day” will be the fourth series incarnation of the sci-fi show.
Gardner followed Tranter to Los Angeles as BBC Worldwide Prods. senior scripted VP, while Davies has an overall deal with the shingle. Zlotnik praises the trio’s “ferocious intelligence.”
“I think they find themselves in a really interesting position,”Zlotnik says, “not only in terms of their creative (capabilities) but also in terms of their timing. The truth is that nobody except HBO can afford to do the really big things they want to do all by themselves. Everybody is out there looking for international partnerships.
“As a production entity and a business entity, to be in between that relationship of U.S. broadcasters and other European international entities makes them a great facilitator of a lot of different people’s goals.”
Upcoming series and miniseries from BBC Worldwide Prods. include the adaptation of U.K. format “Criminal Justice” and a remake of “I, Claudius” for HBO (the latter a co-production); Davies’ drama pilot “Cucumber” for Showtime; “Bellevue,” a drama series for FX with Paul Scheuring (“Prison Break”) writing; original drama series “DaVinci’s Demons” for Starz with David Goyer writing; and disco-era “Mirrorball” (written by Mark Fortin and Josh Miller) for a network to be announced.
“I think (Tranter) gets the idea of big-event scripted programming,” says Nancy Dubuc, president and general manager of History and Lifetime networks. “With a proliferation of cable channels … it’s getting more and more competitive to cut through, and where you can find pockets of expertise (such as) with Jane and BBC Worldwide, you’ll take any advantage you can get.”
Despite the success on ABC of BBC Worldwide Prods.’ “Dancing With the Stars,” which was second in the U.S. only to “American Idol,” with 22.1 million overall viewers on average in 2010-11, the shingle is focusing on cable, and so far only has one scripted project in development with a broadcast network.
“If we tackle network, we tackle network in particular parameters,” Tranter says. “We can’t be in the business of frequently producing 26 episodes of something.”
Even on the unscripted format side, where BBC Worldwide Prods. first made its name, for the most part it has been niche programming that has thrived, such as TLC’s “What Not to Wear” and the U.S. adaptation of “Top Gear,” which drew 2.1 million viewers for its season finale on History while scoring the channel its lowest median age for a series.
“We have the advantage in some instances — ‘Top Gear’ being the perfect example — in the fact that we don’t have to appeal to everybody, which can suddenly make the show stronger,” Dubuc says.
Among the assets for Tranter and her team is the license to experiment, taking advantage of clients’ wide-ranging tastes and the multitude of U.S. nets for which to develop more adaptations and originals.
“We set out here to marry the best of English creative and production practices with the best of American creative and production practices,” Tranter says. “I like to think of ourselves as sort of a human bridge across the Atlantic. I like the fact that in America people talk about how great British television is, and in (the U.K.) people talk about how great American television is. …We like to think somehow we are able to unite those two television cultures.”