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A cross-Atlantic cable

The accent is on experimentation as BBC America works to find its U.S. niche.

November 27, 2005|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

RICH soccer players, scheming wives, lesbian liaisons. Attempted murder, drugs, kidnappings, secrets. A teammate, a teammate's mother -- and a hermaphrodite baby.

Those are just a few of the plot points pulling viewers into the coarse and soapy "Footballers Wive$," one of BBC America's biggest hits. And if you liked that, the network is betting you'll appreciate its lurid jailhouse drama, "Bad Girls"; its mystery-drama-thriller-musical, "Viva Blackpool"; and, coming next year, a warts-and-all movie that portrays Princess Margaret in all her topless, cocaine-riddled glory.

It can be difficult to find a broad television audience in the U.S. for contemporary British fare, in which the language can be incomprehensible and the quirky humor might miss the funny bone by a mile. But after seven years, BBC America is still trying -- and making inroads -- with a newly expanded budget, adjustments in programming, and a plan to create its own original shows.

"We're getting on with it, little nips and tucks if you like," says Kathryn Mitchell, the network's general manager, in her chipper Yorkshire accent. She and a largely British-born staff are based in New York.

The ad-supported network, a product of BBC Television that's distributed by Discovery Networks, started out with an almost solid diet of "Antiques Roadshow," but it has evolved into a broad-based network that spotlights some of Britain's most original or offbeat entertainment. Buoyed in part by the success of the Golden Globe-winning "The Office," the network now reaches 43 million homes, up from just under 30 million in 2003.

Though BBC America still acquires its share of historical dramas -- "Tom Brown's Schooldays," spotlighting bullying in an 1820s boys' school, was scheduled to air Thursday -- much of British television is experimental and edgy, says Mitchell, who came to BBC America in January from Comedy Central, where she oversaw research, scheduling and acquisitions for four years. Until then, her career was rooted in England, where she was controller of UKTV Channels, a joint venture between the BBC and Flextech, one of the largest cable network groups in Britain.

"We'd like to think, in our arrogance, it would be great if Americans saw these shows and were influenced in the same way we were" by shows such as "St. Elsewhere," "ER" and "Dallas," she says.

BBC America purchases its entertainment programs, which have usually already aired on BBC One and Two, BBC Worldwide, and other U.K. broadcasters. What goes into the schedule is "not about what the staff likes. It's certainly not about what's doing well in England. It's 'What will the American people like?' " Mitchell says. With "The Office" and this year's "Footballers Wive$," she says, "We're beginning to get a real handle on that."

As she sees it, there's no secret to the popularity of the sexy soap opera about the misbehaving soccer players and their glamorous wives. "It's 'Dallas,' " she says. "And proud of it we are."

But time has turned up genres that just don't translate. Geographically specific soaps such as "EastEnders" and "Coronation Street," for instance, were dropped in 2003. Mitchell said it's been difficult as well for Americans to relate to the humor in "Little Britain," a Python-esque series about eccentrics, lunatics and social misfits. It has experienced a resurgence of interest lately, however, she says.

The network's audience is upscale and diverse and likes to break up typical network fare with English accents and offbeat humor. "They are certainly looking for something fresh, original and maybe a little more reflective of real life," says Jo Petherbridge, senior vice president of corporate communications.

As a result, the channel seems to venture far and wide in its programming. Consider the talkative, toothy claymation animals interviewed in "Creature Comforts," or the ruthless office politics and flagrant malpractice found on the medical drama "Bodies." The channel has also expanded its BBC World News programs, known for unbiased, comprehensive news coverage that draws large audiences after major international events such as the transit bombings in London and the earthquake in Pakistan.

The goal is flexibility, she says. "We don't want to be pegged with one special thing. If a trend fades, you want to be able to flow with the audience and their desire."

To help viewers find what they want, the schedule has been segmented into drama, comedy, lifestyle and news blocks. Mysteries, the most popular genre, appear on Monday nights. Live news feeds from London air weekday mornings in a continuous three-hour block.

Like most basic cable networks in the U.S., BBC America wants to create its own programs and plans to co-produce more shows with its British counterparts. Mitchell says the network will begin producing its own shows next year, set to air starting in 2007, with content largely depending on "who walks in with the right idea."

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