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BBC, Discovery to Co-Produce Shows

March 20, 1998|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — In a move that is likely to affect programming on Public Broadcasting Service and A&E cable network, British Broadcasting Corp. and Discovery Communications announced a $600-million joint venture Thursday.

The partnership, which has been in negotiations for 18 months, will include co-productions for nonfiction programming that will air on Discovery's cable networks and the launch of new cable networks abroad and in the United States.

BBC plans to launch a cable channel called BBC America on March 29, offering newscasts for two hours a day, along with British sitcoms and dramas.

The deal gives Discovery first refusal on BBC-made programming in several nonfiction categories, including science, nature and history. This means that BBC programming that might have appeared on PBS' "Nova" and "Nature" series or on A&E's various history series would likely be seen on the Discovery Channel or its allied outlets, which include the Learning Channel and the Animal Planet channel.

"It's a 'first-look' deal that will ensure much more money for co-productions," said Ronald Neil, chief executive of BBC Production. "If Discovery doesn't buy it, we can offer the programming elsewhere."

Neal said that existing BBC contracts with PBS and A&E will not be affected by the new deal, and PBS officials downplayed its impact on public television.

"We expect to continue doing business with the BBC, regardless of the fact that Discovery may get first crack at some kinds of programming," said PBS spokesman Harry Forbes. "In addition, we've been getting British product from companies other than the BBC, and we expect to do business directly with many of the production companies that work with the BBC."

Executives at Discovery said they will spend $175 million in co-productions over the next five years. An additional $100 million, they said, will be spent to launch the BBC America channel, which initially will be available only to cable subscribers in markets where cable-system operator Tele-Communications Inc.--one of the owners of Discovery Communications--has rolled out digital-TV service.

The remainder of the budget, executives said, will go to launching new cable networks abroad. The first two channels are Animal Planet, a version of the U.S. network, and People & Arts, a cultural and informational channel.

Some producers at BBC have expressed concerns that the British network may do fewer hard-hitting documentaries because of the desire to have salable shows in the U.S. and foreign countries.

"The BBC will have complete editorial control," said BBC Director-General John Birt. "There's no question of this deal affecting our news programming."

BBC America will give BBC a long-desired foothold of its own in the United States. It was unclear whether the British network will eventually give some of its big-ticket costume dramas to BBC America to drive distribution of the channel. American executives said they thought British drama producers would want the nationwide distribution of PBS for their first-run productions.

Executives at the two new partners said the deal took so long to consummate because of complex legal negotiations between Discovery and BBC, which is Britain's version of PBS. "We've signed 60 documents," said John Hendricks, chairman and CEO of Discovery Communications.

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