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BBC America: "A Little Brit Different"


      On March 20th, 1998, the British Broadcasting Corporation finalized an eighteen month-long contract negotiation with Discovery to expand its international market. Anticipating the world of television to enter a more digital industry, the BBC made a $565 million agreement with the American broadcaster,[1] to “position BBC more squarely on the international stage.”[2] As a result of the agreement, the BBC became the owner of an American cable channel: BBC America.
      The deal, which launched BBC America nine days later in the US, was one of “unprecedented scope and complexity”[3]due to the BBC’s strict restrictions in commercial operations.[4] More than 60 documents were signed to complete the agreement. The outcome of the deal was twofold: the BBC became the sole owner of BBC America and maintained editorial control over its new channel, while Discovery acquired the channel’s marketing rights. American cable subscribers received a new channel featuring British sitcoms, dramas and 2-hour daily news broadcasts[5]. (see Repertoire)
      During the channel's debut, the owner of BBC America assured viewers that the channel’s values and shows would not become Americanized as a result of its U.S. financing.[6]This financing featured an interesting distribution of the money. Discovery would have to spend $100 million in start-up costs for BBC America, $175 million in the co-production of documentaries shown on the new channel, and an additional $390 million on the development of other related international channels. Among these channel were Animal Planet, BBC Canada, People&Arts, and so forth.


      BBC America -available in 68 million homes- remains owned entirely by the British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC produces many television channels funded by the UK’s television license fee, which includes four BBC channels, an additional HD channel, CBBC, CBeebies, BBC News Channel and BBC Parliament. In addition, the BBC worldwide branch has expanded its ownership of commercial TV channels to include: Animal Planet (owned partially with Discovery), BBC Canada, BBC Entertainment, BBC Kids (Canada), BBC Knowledge, BBC Lifestyle, BBC Worlds News, People+Arts and BBC Australia.[7]


       BBC America offers a wide range of both old and contemporary British programming from a variety of genres consisting of drama, lifestyle, news and comedy.[8] Hit shows include documentaries, such as You are what you Eat, sitcoms such as Peep Show, and reality television shows, such as Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. BBC America also airs broadcast journalism from one of its partner channels, BBC World News and more recently, in addition to broadcasting British films, has stretched to include such American cult- classics as Die Hard with a Vengeance in its evening line- up. As this diverse list suggests, BBC America caters to a variety of different audiences -with age groups ranging from 18 to 55 plus, and a median audience age of 37- rather than targeting a specific target audience.[9] However, unlike its UK counter- part, BBC America does not air children’s programming and instead sticks to the more adult picks from the UK line- up.

Audience and Broadcasting Techniques

       While BBC America’s audience may not be defined by a certain age or gender, research carried out by the channel defines some of its specific characteristics. Senior Vice President Mark Gall describes his audience as “…from around the world…up-scale”, people who “have a very similar mind-set of what's important to [them]” and most importantly for advertisers, “early adopters to new stuff”.[10] In response to this research, BBC America shifted its focus to incorporate the channel more deeply into the digital era. Its prominent Internet website, for example, now allows viewers to access the playlists from their favorite shows. The UK BBC’s online player, which provides full access to its digital library, also positively benefits BBC America. The website grants American viewers a platform upon which to familiarize themselves with British programming. This generates new demand for BBC America entertainment. The channel also reinforces brand- image by association while audiences are away from the television. Audiences follow the extremely popular BBC News website throughout the day, encouraging them to return in the evening to a line-up of BBC America entertainment.

       BBC America also uses its parent channel, BBC UK, to help with scheduling techniques. Because BBC America broadcasts both unique entertainment programming from the UK and broadcast journalism --a highly competitive field-- its use of “lead- ins” largely determine its success. Each week day evening at 5pm, its popular program Doctor Who followed by Top Gear air directly before BBC News America.[11] The channel uses its competitive and edgy shows to maximize flow for its less distinctive programming. Airing reruns of BBC’s hit shows (Top Gear, Star- Trek) in the early morning and late night presents another possibility of increasing revenue due to the low costs of production involved.

       BBC America’s unique international content has provided a major form of publicity in a final, perhaps unexpected, way. “Idea- sharing”, in the form of reworking British television hits into Americanized versions, such as NBC’s The Office: an American Workpla'ce, supplies an abundance of free publicity for BBC America.[12] Each time a journalist writes an article on an Americanized show, the words “based on BBC America’s [original show name]…” provide highly effective media attention for the channel.

DIstribution, Transmission, and Production

       While sometimes referred to as the “BBC America Network,” BBC America is in fact a cable channel owned and affiliated with BBC UK (the BBC). It is in a unique situation, in that it is a commercial branch of a public parent network. As previously mentioned, it is entirely owned by the BBC and airs a large portion of BBC programming, yet is not eligible to receive funding by British TV licensing fees because the channel is not available in the UK. [13] The programs that do not originate in the UK largely consist of BBC America’s news segment, adaptations of British shows, and syndications of American shows and movies.

       BBC America is transmitted by Discovery Networks on both digital cable and satellite providers, and it reaches approximately 68 million homes in the United States. [14] In addition, the channel is available internationally in Bermuda and Guam, and it airs its news segment in the UK on BBC News Channel and worldwide on BBC World News. [15]

       As BBC America is the representative of British television in America, it offers a wide variety of programming from a wide variety of different producers. Naturally, the BBC is a major contributor to BBC America programming, with many programs being direct imports from the BBC and its other affiliates. Popular shows such as Doctor Who are produced exclusively by the BBC, while other original British shows have been produced partially or exclusively by private production studios and/or other British networks, such as ITV, Channel 4, and Five. BBC America also offers several programs that originated in the UK and have been adapted for American viewing. An American company working in conjunction with the original British producer typically produces these programs, which are altered to draw more advertisers in the commercialized American television market. For example, BBC World Productions has begun working with HISTORY to produce an American version of the global BBC hit car show, Top Gear. [16] BBC America does venture outside of British programming, featuring several American-produced shows. Most notable is the upcoming Law and Order: UK, which is the fifth branch of the extremely successful Law and Order franchise produced by NBC Universal, among others. [17]

       There are been a few self-produced shows aired on BBC America, most notably its nightly news program, BBC World News America. Most of the channel’s other investments have been toward programs appearing on other British networks. These investments, however, are on the decline, and BBC America officials declared in 2008 that it could no longer support British comedies to a significant degree. [18]

BBC's Top Gear and Dr. Who

Top Gear (2002- present)

From TG 1977 to TG 2002 in 60 (Words)!

BBC launched the original version of Top Gear on its BBC Midlands channel in 1977. At the time, the show discussed motorcars and other road- related topics without much zest or originality. The following year, in response to the somewhat banal content of the show, BBC altered the show’s format and aired it on national TV such that it reached a much broader audience. The show ran successfully for over twenty years. However, the show shifted gears in 1988 and took a turn for the best when Jeremy Clarkson became the show’s sarcastic, humorous and engaging host. Since Clarkson's repositioning as the host, Top Gear  has become a more comical and entertaining show (rather than one focused simply on educating the audience about motor vehicles). In 2002, the show became what it is today (discussed below) and its immense popularity, combined with its emphasis on British culture, convinced BBC executives to air the show on its international channels, including BBC America.[19]

Quintessentially British

Described by its own executive producer as “a journey into the male mind… which is really a potentially very funny place because, let's face it, nothing happens there," Top Gear consistently tops BBC America’s ratings list, reaching around 350 000 viewers for the newest episodes.[20]This hour- long automotive show features flashy cars executing daring stunts, celebrities competing in time challenges and evaluations of the newest luxury cars. However, Top Gear --particularly when aired on BBC America-- must largely accredit its success to its team of witty, bold, arguably arrogant and quintessentially British hosts: Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond. Clarkson himself argues that entertainment on the show is largely generated from watching the chemistry between these three “aging sports journalists”[21]. Although largely self- contained, each episode of Top Gear follows a similar structure of segments including “the News”, “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” and “The Cool Wall”. This routine, as well as the running jokes featured by the show: the infamous “Stig” (an anonymous racecar driver), and, perhaps chiefly, the many quirks and fancies of the subversive Jeremy Clarkson (such as his oft- proclaimed hatred for Audi drivers, and ironically, Americans) all help maintain a solid and loyal audience within the US, without alienating casual viewers.

Representation on Top Gear

As a narrow cast cable channel, BBC America does not aim to please the “lowest common denominator”. Indeed, with the exhaustive list of groups that Clarkson has offended (from truck drivers to environmentalists), Top Gear would be an utter disaster for such a channel. Rather, it attracts the viewers that BBC America’s senior vice president describes as having “a very similar mind-set”[22]- those that can appreciate the underlying satire or at least, the light hearted nature of the hosts’ remarks. As such, Top Gear has accumulated a cult- like following, including young boys (mostly attracted by the fast cars and heroic persona of “Stig”), upper middle class men (who might actually buy the cars discussed) and perhaps surprisingly, a 40% female audience.[23]Indeed, despite the almost entirely white, middle- aged male cast and audience displayed in studio on the shows, Top Gear innovatively attracts women by its playful, stereotypical presentation of men. The show’s producers and hosts have attributed its popularity amongst women to its ability to make fun of a certain childish and daredevil type of man- one who many women, whether British or American, may recognize. This image results from the outlandish challenges (sailing across the British channel in an Amphibious Toyota) that regularly feature on the show. Top Gear producers also aim to capture the few females in the studio audience on film, in order to emphasize its broad appeal. These eclectic viewers fit successfully into BBC America’s target audience.

Despite the mixture of age and gender attracted by the show, many have argued that it appeals largely to middle and upper middle class audiences. Indeed, the often-criticized under representation of “affordable cars” on the show presents another area of compatibility between the tone of Top Gear and the brand of BBC America.[24] As a typically high earning and worldly audience, as explored in the previous report, BBC America viewers may be attracted to the sense of affluence evoked on the show. Furthermore, the display of such expensive cars and beautiful international locations often featured may help to foster a consumerist mind- set amongst the audience, which attracts advertisers.

BBC Synergy

Still, the most important aspect of Top Gear’s content in establishing its success on BBC America remains its emphasis on British culture. The hosts’ traditional British accents, and use of colloquial slang, combined with the show’s celebration of British history (for example the examination of the creation of the Jaguar) and frequent footage of British countryside all aid BBC America’s quest to provide a channel that is “a little Brit different”. This emphasis contributes to another, more subtle tie between Top Gear’s content and the BBC conglomerate. BBC personalities such as the iconic Jonathan Ross (whose talk-show airs on BBC America) appearing on the show, along with Jeremy Clarskson playing BBC radio in his car during the show provide a subtle yet effective tie between Top Gear’s content and the BBC as an economic industry. The use of synergy instills a greater awareness of the BBC brand, and may encourage viewers to stay tuned for BBC World News, which airs directly after Top Gear on weeknight evenings. More importantly for BBC America, featuring BBC radio and Jonathan Ross on the show provides Americans with a greater taste of life and culture in the UK.

Doctor Who (1963 - 1996, 2005 - present)

World's Greatest Sci-Fi

One of the crown jewels of the BBC lineup, Doctor Who is a program about a mysterious “Doctor” and his companions who use a time and space travel device, the TARDIS, to take its audience to places and times they have never been before. In the process of doing this, it has become a science fiction show that goes where science fiction has never gone before. Amassing a total of 723 episodes over a span of 43 years, Doctor Who is the longest running sci-fi program of all time. It is also critically acclaimed and so influential it was named “most successful sci-fi series” by the Guinness Book of World Records. [25] It has achieved monumental success in the United Kingdom, where it has evolved beyond the traditional sci-fi cult following to become an integral and widely recognizable part of British culture. With episodes exported to BBC America (and other cable stations), Doctor Who is experiencing strong viewership across the pond as well, with recent episodes drawing a 1.1 million strong American audience. [26] Doctor Who is quite an anomaly when it comes to sci-fi shows, and its success is due to its elegant balance of “nerdy” science fiction with superior general watchability.

Sci-Fi Drama

Doctor Who is a shamelessly stereotypical sci-fi show that has remained true to its roots of almost half a century ago. It features a cast of humans, aliens, robots, and Time Lords (in "re the Doctor") traveling through time and space, tearing holes into different dimensions, shooting laser guns, and trying to destroy/save the universe in every episode. Furthermore, the general feel of the show, even in the more recent episodes, is that of an old-fashioned sci-fi movie—with elaborate costumes preempting special effects and dialogue teetering on the verge of cliché. Combined with a plot that consists of a hero Doctor constantly saving the world, these aspects give the show a comic book feel, attracting the mainly young and/or male audience typically associated with science fiction.

What separatesDoctor Who from the comic mold, however, are the characters. While the hero in a comic book is often the most cliché, the Doctor is in fact the least trite character on the show. He is witty and sarcastic and, while technically an alien, he is flawed in ways that make him clearly (and likeably) human. He also travels with and associates very closely with a female human companion, which adds a whole dimension of drama to the show. While never clearly romantically involved, the Doctor and his companion form a strong emotional connection over the course of their travels. When something in the plot tests this relationship, it brings both the characters and viewers closer together, and thus appeals to a much broader audience than just kids and geeks. In the words of Derek Kompare on Antenna media blog, “There’s nothing on American TV that can thread silliness, horror, elation, and heartbreak at the level and speed of Doctor Who.” [27]

Quintessentially British

Doctor Who was originally produced to air in the UK on the BBC and appeal to a broad British audience. Its creators combined fantasy with drama, along with family-friendly violence and scary moments to make a show that appealed to children and adults in the UK. [28] However, this upbringing means that it is tailor-made to British viewers, not Americans. While this could be considered an obstacle, it has achieved success on BBC America, because the channel targets a more specific British television enthusiast audience. BBC America is marketed as a compressed BBC in America, and its viewership consists largely of American enthusiasts British-style programs. Therefore, Doctor Who draws an audience in America that appreciates its British-ness, exemplified in the program Masterpiece Theatre, in addition to its style and drama. [29](3) Americans may never build TARDIS replicas on their front lawn, but they will always be fond of the witty, silly, and touching Doctor Who.

BBC America: The Audience

Online Community

One active thread currently occurring on BBC America’s own webpage discusses the channel’s decision to cut Friday Night with Jonathan Ross to 40 minutes, down from one hour.[30] There is evident confusion amongst viewers, as some claim full-length episodes still air late at night and others only have access to the chopped version that airs at primetime. Bloggers ask why the channel did not at least notify its audience of this change in scheduling so that they could make plans to record the show. One blogger comments on the disorganization of the channel: “It would be nice if they would let everyone know about the difference”.

The fans express both frustration and disappointment with the channel and even express the belief that BBC America does not understand the desires of its audience. One blogger notices that the chopped version of the talk show often edits out interviews with British performers such as Tom Hardy and asks, “Does BBCA think we only want to see American performers interviewed?” This is surprising given the channel’s desire to create a characteristically British channel for American viewers and its typical aim to maximize the British aspects of their shows. However, the many conflicting interests of the bloggers suggest the difficulty of catering to such a wide variety of different types of audience.

Perhaps this decision to shorten Jonathan Ross shows that BBC America hopes to reach a compromise between the different viewers’ tastes, rather than that it does not understand its audience. Indeed, while one person argues in favor of the decision: “For me it's worth it if it means they aren't cutting back on the sitcoms. I usually just tivo Jonathan Ross anyway,” another angrily asks “showing JRoss with half his guests is a bit crap… What is the point of showing only half a show?” Clearly, the channel cannot please all of its audience. Indeed, the comments on this decision on other fan pages show even more hostility to the channel. One angry Jonathan Ross lover condemns BBC America: On the 6/25/2010 …the start time of Jonathan's show was pushed back 20 minutes to make room for two 40 minute showing of "Not Going Out." I am saddened to think that BBC America and the people who produce "Friday Night" care so little for the America viewers. Shame on you BBC America and Jonathan Ross!!!”[31] Clearly, the reletavely limited fan base for Jonathan Ross in the USA is a passionate one.

BBC America shows an attempt to sooth the angry bloggers at the end of the thread, as the BBCA administrator posts a few highlights from the parts of Jonathan Ross that were cut out of one show. Still, the thread is riddled with sarcastic remarks “way to go BBCA” and perhaps most severely, “What a joke BBC America have made out of a great BBC show!” Finally, a blogger expresses appreciation that there are so many other distributors of BBC shows, “thank goodness there are so many “ways” to watch current BBC shows” and in doing so, insults BBC America as a distributer yet compliments the BBC itself.

  1. Lawrie Mifflin. "BBC and Discovery to Develop Programming Together. " New York Times 20 Mar. 1998, Late Edition (East Coast): ProQuest National Newspapers Premier, ProQuest. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.
  2. Simon Beavis. "BBC teams up with Discovery; Communications revolution gathers pace". The Guardian London 20 Mar. 1998: LexisNexis Academic, Web. 6 Oct. 2010.
  3. Adam Dawtrey. "BBC, Discoveryin Fact Pact." Variety 24 Mar. 1998: LexisNexis Academic. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.
  4. Lawrie Mifflin. "BBC and Discovery to Develop Programming Together. " New York Times 20 Mar. 1998, Late Edition (East Coast): ProQuest National Newspapers Premier, ProQuest. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.
  5. JANE HALL. "Company Town; BBC, Discovery to Co-Produce Shows :[Home Edition]. " Los Angeles Times 20 Mar. 1998,Los Angeles Times, ProQuest. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.
  6. Adam Dawtrey. "BBC, Discoveryin Fact Pact." Variety 24 Mar. 1998: LexisNexis Academic. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.
  7. “BBC’s international Commercial TV Channels”. BBC International Tv. Web. Oct. 6 2010.
  8. Genre list on CableU profile of BBC America-
  9. Comcast package advertisement-
  10. Advertising Age interview with Gall-
  11. Fall 2010 Schedule BBC America-
  12. Variety Magazine interview with COO Paul Lee-
  13. BBC America website, FAQ.
  14. BBC America Press website, Overview.
  15. BBC World News, World News America.
  16. Seidman, Robert. "HISTORY in Production with BBC on U.S. Version of ‘Top Gear‘ Hosted by Adam Ferrara, Tanner Foust and Rutledge Wood." August 6, 2010.
  17. Vanoli, Lisa; Tim West. "The cream of British acting talent comes together for Law & Order:UK."
  18. Brown, Maggie. "BBC America curbs British comedy investment." June 26, 2008.
  19. Mark Savage. “Top Gear’s chequered past.” BBC News 21 Sept. 2006, Web. 4 Nov. 2010
  20. Top Gear: Zero to "60 Minutes", CBS News:
  21. Ibid
  22. Advertising Age interview with Gall-
  23. Statistic taken from Top Gear special on “60 Mintues” CBS- on
  24. Top Gear criticism reports from History of Top Gear on Global Oneness:
  25. "'Doctor Who' Honored by Guinness - Entertainment News, TV News, Media". Variety. 23 November 2009.
  26. Plunkett, John. “Doctor Who achieves record US audience.” The Guardian. Dec 13, 2009.
  27. Kompare, Derek. “Mind the Gap: Watching Doctor Who in America.” Antenna, April 24, 2010.
  28. Howard, Philip (29 January 1972). "Violence is not really Dr Who's cup of tea". The Times: p. 2.
  29. Kompare, Derek. “Mind the Gap: Watching Doctor Who in America.” Antenna, April 24, 2010.
  30. Blog on “Show trimmed to 40 minutes”:
  31. Fan review of Jonathan Ross on BBC America