Time for ‘The Hour’ at BBC America

Net sets newsroom drama

BBC America chief Herb Scannell is going back to 1950s London for his first original scripted series greenlight since he took over the cabler last June.

Toplined by Dominic West, “The Hour” is a six-part drama set in a TV newsroom of the era. Scannell describes the show as “Mad Men” meets a Cold War conspiracy thriller, centered around a love triangle among characters charged with setting up a weekly investigative news program.

Set to bow in late summer or early fall, “The Hour” was created by Abi Morgan (“Brick Lane”), and also stars Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw. The co-production of BBC America, its U.K. counterpart and Kudos Films and Television is part of Scannell’s agenda to bring more wholly original programming to BBC America to complement the channel’s existing Brit hits including “Doctor Who,” “Top Gear,” “Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” and “Law and Order: U.K.

BBC America is now a pure entertainment channel in primetime as its news programming has shifted to public TV stations in the U.S. and to the thinly distributed cable channel BBC World News.

In one of his first extensive interviews since taking over, Scannell said he doesn’t want to stray from the BBC’s tradition of quality programs, and it will continue to make shows that are “intelligent, innovative and irreverent.” In other words, don’t expect to see a Cockney-tongued Snooki appear anytime soon. While he is programming for an American audience, Scannell said those viewers come to the channel looking for a “British sensibility. Having a British connective tissue wherever possible is always good.”

It took five trips to London between Labor Day and Christmas, but Scannell was able to persuade his bosses there to triple the channel’s programming budget over the next five years. He won’t disclose the amount of the budget but describes it as “substantial.”

He plans to add four to six unscripted shows to the BBC America’s lineup per year and one to two dramas. An earlier project announced was “Royally Mad,” a two-part reality series following five Americans who are fanatics about the royal family. The show will air in April ahead of the royal wedding.

Scannell wants to send the message that the BBC is open for business in Hollywood, as well as with Britain’s independent TV producers. Another source for new shows, he said, will be BBC existing production unit in London, and the one in L.A. headed by Jane Tranter, the company that delivered hits shows like “Dancing With the Stars” and “Top Gear.”

“We want a diversified pipeline,” Scannell said. Offnet shows are also an option, he added, having purchased “The X-Files” and “The Tudors” since he arrived.

To help him execute his mission, Scannell recruited Perry Simon, a longtime production exec at Viacom and NBC. On the business side, he recruited as his chief operating officer News Corp. exec Ann Sarnoff, with whom Scannell had worked years before at Viacom.

BBC America was launched 13 years ago in a partnership with Discovery, which has minimal involvement with the channel’s operation now. Scannell believes there’s still plenty of room to grow, projecting that distribution will expand from 70 million to 75 million homes by the end of the year. Ratings in the first quarter are up 36%, and the gains are expected to continue as anticipation builds to the royal wedding, which will be broadcast on the channel April 29.

He is obviously seeing things through a different lens now, but Scannell said he believes British culture has been the “it culture” over the past several months, with MTV debuting “Skins,” inspired by its British counterpart, Piers Morgan taking over for Larry King on CNN, Andrew Garfield being cast as Superman and Christian Bale winning an Oscar. “It’s like the new British invasion,” he said.

The next step in his transformation to Anglophile will come when Scannell hosts a royal wedding reception in partnership with the British consulate. It’s actually a 6 a.m. breakfast in BBC America’s modern new offices in midtown Manhattan to watch the wedding on TV. “It’s great to be the BBC,” said Scannell. “We have the wind behind our sails.”

You can bet Scannell will toast the nuptials that morning with a cup of tea.