Cable Report: Sex, Please, We’re British

BBC America is cable’s latest darling, serving up racy comedy, edgy drama

Gary and Chanelle Delahoussaye of Lafayette, La., may not seem to fit your standard definition of “urbane.” He’s a lawyer who golfs; she’s a homemaker with a green thumb. They’re more likely to turn up at a backyard crawfish boil than a trendy club. Yet, as avid viewers of BBC America, they’re on the cutting edge of a TV trend.

Gary has joined the cult that religiously follows the sophisticated sitcoms Coupling and The Office. And Chanelle says she’s “obsessed” with the net’s home-improvement fare, especially the landscaping number Ground Force.”We can’t get enough of these shows,” she gushes. “We’re hooked!”

And the Delahoussayes aren’t alone. For starters, their dear friends, Shannon and Kimberly Gremillion—this reporter’s own brother and sister-in-law, also young professionals in Lafayette—are big fans, too. Shannon howls as he recites lines of dialogue from the frequently rerun 40-minute sitcoms. And Kimberly endows the stars of Changing Rooms —the interior-design program that inspired the TLC phenom Trading Spaces—with something akin to rock-star status, imploring, “Can you ask them to come do my house?”

More notably, BBC America’s subscriber base has grown from 28 million to 35 million in the past year, and on its best nights it competes with much larger channels like Bravo, E! and VH1.

Its mix of provocative comedies, fashion-forward self-improvement fare, edgy dramas and news content with a unique international perspective—all told, the best of what it can borrow from mother channel BBC—has made the five-year-old outfit one of the fastest-growing little networks on cable.

CEO Paul Lee likes to brag that BBC America’s ratings grew faster than those of any other non-news cable network in this year’s first quarter—spiking 38 percent among 25- to 54-year-olds against last year’s figures—to rank fifth overall. “We attract people who respond to something a little more original,” says Lee. “We have a high concentration of successful, high-income, college-educated viewers.” Lee adds that “exciting, energetic” advertisers like Volkswagen are tuning is as well, eager to be associated with the new BBC image.

BBC America owes its success thus far to prescient choices about how to build business—and audience. It made its debut in 1998, as cable operators nationwide were looking to fill out their new digital-basic packages. The BBC, which owns and provides all the content for the net, partnered with well-positioned Discovery Networks for affiliate and advertising sales. “That has proven to be one of the best decisions we ever made,” says Lee. At the time, Discovery made the best of the BBC brand—pushing the prestige factor—and BBC’s global news-gathering resources.

“Originally, we considered BBC America a niche channel,” says Mark Morrison, vp for Mediacom’s eastern Iowa and northern Illinois region. “We felt its news would appeal to our large Indian population, and a certain group of highly educated older customers. What’s happened now, though, is its popularity has grown beyond that niche. We’re finding that females are drawn to What Not To Wear and the style content, and young adults—say, college-age through late 20s—are following the comedies. And still, the diehards are there for the news. They haven’t been alienated.”

Lee says in the early days, the net was indeed cautious. “We tried to be gracious, more conservative,” recalls the CEO, himself a Brit. “We felt like guests. But Britain was entering a new golden age of comedy, so we had some out-of-control material. And all the research showed Americans were bored with cookie-cutter programming. HBO was having hits with The Sopranos and Sex and the City. We felt it was an ideal time to show that the best British shows aren’t all period costume dramas. Now I think people expect us to be irreverent, and a little bit mad.”

The madness extends beyond occasional sexual innuendo. Almost every episode of Coupling, often described as a racier Friends, hinges on some sexual concern. Language on BBC America can be explicit; the f-word pops up now and then. And gay life is often embraced: In late May, the miniseries Tipping the Velvet explored lesbianism in the Victorian era. Then, there’s openly fabulous comic Graham Norton’s late-night gabber, So Graham Norton. Norton is the net’s biggest breakout star, offering a striking alternative to the gray-hairs and frat boys on the major networks. Even BBC America’s news content stands apart; its coverage of the Iraq War was perceived by many as less biased than that of the often-flag-waving U.S. broadcasters.

The net is drawing praise from all quarters. “This is not the snooty BBC we used to know,” says TV Guide critic Matt Roush. “This BBC is ahead of the curve, a hip destination for people looking for something different.” Roush’s personal fave is The Office, a relentlessly drab and deadpan comedy about semi-likable cubicle-dwellers, which the critic calls “an absolute home run.”

Of course, American broadcast nets are looking to steal some of BBC America’s thunder. NBC is readying a Chicago-based version of Coupling for this fall. “We felt it would translate well to American audiences,” says Karey Burke, executive vp/prime-time series development at NBC. “The sensibility seems to be a perfect fit following Will & Grace on NBC’s sophisticated, urbane Thursday night comedy lineup.”

Don’t bother asking host Norton to explain the appeal of BBC America, or his own program. (He hasn’t a clue—even though he has a closetful of leather pants.) “Maybe [American audiences] are just drawn to the freedom we enjoy on British TV. We more or less have carte blanche to do whatever we like. So long as it’s funny.”

Jeff Gremillion is a contributor to Mediaweek.