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The British Are Coming - to US Cable

By Dirk SmillieSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 1998



NEW YORK

In a small office in Bethesda, Md., hangs a "war map" with colored pins stuck into major cities around the United States. The office is an outpost for the largest television production studios in the world; the map a battle plan for "BBC America."

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Yes, that's BBC America, a 24-hour cable channel bringing American viewers on- the-edge Britcoms, classic dramas, and the famous BBC news.

The new channel was launched last March as part of a $650 million joint venture with Discovery Networks, one of the top five cable networks in the US.

"Basically we're cherry-picking the best of what the BBC is producing and putting it all on one channel," says Paul Lee, BBC America's general manager.

For years the BBC has sold its programs around the world, marketing "Top of the Pops" to German audiences, "I, Claudius" to Europeans, and classics like "Monty Python" and "Masterpiece Theatre" to US viewers via PBS. Now, for the first time, Americans can get the best of the BBC's comedy, drama, news, and documentaries round-the-clock.

Well, some Americans, anyway. The channel is available in 600,000 US households via TCI's new digital cable service, "HITS." That includes parts of Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, Denver, and San Francisco. But Mr. Lee says BBC America is "well on track" for reaching 25 million homes in the next five years.

BBC America is competing with nearly 100 new cable channels that have launched or are planning to launch this year and next, says Derek Baine, senior analyst at Paul Kagan Associates, a media research firm in Carmel, Calif.

"Every new channel has plans to be in millions of homes. The question is, will they spend the money to pay cable operators to carry them?" asks Mr. Baine.

Those watching will see established series like "Eastenders," plus new BBC shows, at the same time they debut in London. More than 60 percent of BBC America's programs are premires of first-run series.

The new channel's lineup includes "Brilliant!," a cheeky, outrageous comedy continuing the anarchic tradition of "Monty Python," and "Hamish Macbeth," a laid-back Highland constable who confronts crime in the fictional town of Lochdubh, a remote Scottish village filled with quirky characters.

This November the British cult favorite "This Life" joins the BBC America schedule. A cross between "Friends" and "Ally McBeal," the plot swirls around five young lawyers who are rivals by day and hard-partying friends by night.

American viewers will have a chance to sample the BBC's vaunted documentaries in a new series, "True Brits." Among the topics: a behind-the-scenes look at Britain's Ministry of Defence; a fly-on-the-wall adventure with some of Liverpool's busiest fire crews; and the secret lives of Tory wives.

BBC America also promises US viewers a look at the rest of the world through the eyes of "BBC World News" morning, noon, and night. Such high-quality fare may entice US audiences, but the launch of BBC America drew the ire of British members of Parliament (MPs) and competitors at home who think the global broadcaster is becoming too commercial.

Last spring MPs grilled BBC executives over the BBC/Discovery partnership and a recent deal with Microsoft, asking why a public-service broadcaster that relies on a license fee from UK citizens should charge for advertising and chase ratings overseas.

John Birt, the BBC's director general, explained that commercial ventures like BBC America are a way for the BBC to stay competitive as a global broadcaster at a time when digital television and the expanding Internet are increasingly luring audiences.

Strengthening the BBC's identity with US viewers will likely come at the expense of PBS, which for years has held a near-exclusive franchise on British productions like "Yes, Minister" and "Fawlty Towers."

Perhaps it's time for PBS to consider the launch of "PBS Britannia."