How BBC America Is Building Buzz

With splashy thrillers

Sarah Barnett hasn't been genetically engineered, like all those clones in Orphan Black, for the job at hand. It just seems that way. Barnett's new gig—she's a few months into her tenure as president and general manager of the buzzed-about cable channel BBC America—brings her back to the place where she began her stateside career a decade ago, so she intimately knows the lay of the land. It also keeps her in the AMC Networks fold, where she methodically built SundanceTV from the quirky home of indie flicks into an ad-supported, original-content player with scripted series like Rectify, Top of the Lake and Carlos.

Now that AMC has taken an operating stake in BBC America, the U.K.-born-and-bred Barnett will be running point on the new relationship. She'll also be guiding the channel, which recently logged its highest-rated year in prime time and total viewers, into the ever-competitive upfront presentations to advertisers and beyond, where she says she'll continue to take "the big swings" that helped put the "Beeb" on the map in the U.S. 

Barnett is no daughter of the Dyad Institute, the shadowy research facility at the center of Orphan Black, but she sees in that drama's compelling universe a sort of prototype for the future. "I think all the values within the DNA of that show are probably things that will propel us forward from a brand, marketing and programming perspective," Barnett says. "It's a fun, splashy, entertaining, thrilling ride. It's truly serious about some feminist issues but never wears that heavily. It excites me to think about how we build on that. How do we do more of that, creating relevant, electric and urgent noise around this brand?"

She does not mean knockoffs of the cult favorite—which stars Tatiana Maslany in multiple roles and returns April 18 for its much-anticipated third season—but rather like-minded programming that she describes as "surprising" and "alive and vital in this culture," without being weighed down by its own smarts. That will involve a mix of scripted and unscripted fare, similar to Sundance, where she championed not only The Honourable Woman starring Maggie Gyllenhaal but also the breakout reality series Push Girls.

"The shows need a certain quality and creative courage," Barnett says of BBC America projects on the horizon, "but we won't be taking ourselves too seriously."

A new crop of originals, developed under the network's previous regime, hews closely to the channel's high-production-value, brainy identity, she says. Tatau, a Saturday night companion to Orphan Black, also debuting April 18, is a drama steeped in Maori myth. The eight-hour series, shot in the South Pacific and New Zealand, comes from the producers of previous BBC America hit Being Human and follows a couple of young Londoners on a globe-trotting adventure. The characters end up in the Cook Islands, where one stumbles across an apparently murdered local girl and both are pulled into an attempt to unravel the ensuing mystery.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a miniseries set during the Napoleonic Wars, leans heavily on special effects for its magic-themed story. Not a fussy period piece meant just for history buffs, says its creators and network executives, it's an all-family show airing this summer that aims to mine the broad appeal of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and other fantasy properties.

And from the producers of Downton Abbey comes The Last Kingdom, which could well be basic cable's answer to HBO's Game of Thrones, though it will combine historical figures with fictional characters when it launches in the fall. (It'll also likely feature much less skin.)

The forthcoming series join current hits like Doctor Who, Sherlock, Ripper Street, The Musketeers, Luther and Broadchurch, now in its second season and starring David Tennant and Olivia Colman in the lead roles.

Orphan Black, which adds a lethal group of military-bred male clones this season, saw its ratings double last year and came into its own as a heavyweight on social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr. (Check out #CloneClub on Twitter, with its animated GIFs, fan-made videos and artwork and discussions of the new Orphan Black cosplay merchandise at Hot Topic.)

The time-traveling, nerd-bait mainstay Doctor Who, in spite of—or maybe because of—its long legacy, finished its most recent season with its best ratings, and its Christmas special pulled in some 2.6 million viewers in live-plus-three-day totals. No slouch on social media, the series, starring Peter Capaldi, was one of Twitter's 10 most-tweeted original dramas in 2014 across all of cable.

Barnett, whose personal TV tastes run from Jane the Virgin and The Americans to Broad City, sees the Beeb's standout programming coming from "the auteur system," where writers, directors and producers have considerable leeway in bringing their vision to the screen. There's no reason to rein that in, the executive says, having watched it work at Sundance and noting that U.S. television has actually taken a page from the Brits on this score, with prestige projects like Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad and Matthew Weiner's Mad Men, both on AMC.

Without that ability to stretch, Orphan Black likely wouldn't exist, says its co-creator and director John Fawcett. He and Graeme Manson, co-creator and writer, had never run their own show before, though they're veterans of the entertainment industry, and their idea about a conspiracy thriller centered on test-tube clones wasn't an easy pitch. "It scared everyone away," Fawcett says of the days when he and Manson were shopping the series. "They thought it was a cool script, but no one wanted to make it."

Enter BBC America, which gave them a long leash. "They basically hired two unknown guys and gave us the freedom to explore," Fawcett adds. "And it wasn't just a product to them. They've poured a lot of passion and love into the show."

Having that imprimatur has made the difference, he says, in breaking out of what could've been a genre ghetto somewhere else. "Being on that network made people take us seriously," he notes. "It infused the show with a level of integrity. We may not have known it then, but in hindsight it was the best possible situation for us and for the show."

While popular series like Broadchurch (which explores the fallout of a child's murder in a small seaside town), celebrity-heavy chatfest The Graham Norton Show and David Attenborough's panoramic Planet Earth are in place, one pillar of the schedule is currently missing.

Car-centric franchise Top Gear, one of BBC's most watched programs, is on an unplanned hiatus, and the season's remaining Sunday night episodes probably will be scrapped. U.K. public broadcaster BBC, originator of the long-running and highly profitable Top Gear, fired controversial host Jeremy Clarkson after an "unprovoked physical and verbal attack" on a producer, according to a recent statement. The series, which counts some 350 million global viewers, earning it a spot in the Guinness World Records as the most popular factual TV series in the world, is expected to return next year with an as-yet-unannounced cast.

BBC America executives haven't decided how to fill the void in the short term, though they are considering bringing back a homegrown competition series aimed at a similar audience, Mud, Sweat and Gears, that just finished a solid run this winter.

It may have been the Beeb's penchant for sharp, serialized drama that spawned the deal last fall with AMC Networks, which acquired a 49.9 percent stake for $200 million. The two had already collaborated on original programming like the Jane Campion-directed Emmy-winning miniseries Top of the Lake. And their combined heft is an advantage in an era of continued media consolidation.

AMC manages the joint venture, including ad sales and distribution, while Barnett was chosen to lead the channel, based on her "appetite for creative risk-taking and her strong leadership skills," says her boss, AMC Networks COO Ed Carroll. She took over in January, while AMC only last week announced AMC president Charlie Collier will take over management of SundanceTV.

With a background in production and marketing (she spent a dozen years at the BBC in London before relocating to the U.S.), Barnett kept an eye on both divisions while at Sundance. The result, notes Carroll, was "a successful and dramatic transformation" that cemented Sundance as a "formidable player in the scripted drama space."

Carroll adds, "As her track record at SundanceTV demonstrates, Sarah has great taste and a keen eye for spotting talent. She is able to support writers, directors and producers in a way that brings forward their best work."

With Barnett at the helm, Sundance "started to resemble that small neighborhood of outlets like FX, AMC, Netflix and the premium channels known for their high-pedigree dramas," notes Robert Thompson, professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University. "Their shows were mentioned in the same breath with True Detective and Fargo and Breaking Bad."

Barnett says she will continue to do a "constant calibration" of business and creative concerns at BBC America. "I'm not a fan of being overly didactic and backing into programming as if you're checking off boxes, but you can't just chase good shows without any sense of what it all adds up to."

Because executive ranks are lean in the cable world, Barnett may continue to be involved in shaping projects, as she did at Sundance, aiming to "walk right up to the line of being an annoying micromanager—but not cross it," as she puts it.

BBC America, available in some 80 million homes, is poised to expand its viewer base under Barnett, says Lisa Herdman, svp of national programming and branded entertainment at Los Angeles agency RPA. "They produce amazing programming, they're a great fit for AMC Networks, and they're ready for the next level," Herdman says. "There aren't a ton of viewers based on our media buying currency, but it's a valuable audience for certain clients and products."

Using a young-skewing show like Orphan Black as a marketing hook "could be a great segue into getting mainstream America acquainted with this network," Herdman adds.

Barnett says she won't overlook traditional media outlets when it comes to marketing BBC America programs, but is on the lookout for digital partnerships "that feel truly pioneering, different and arresting" and that connect with today's streaming, binging, on-demand viewers.

"Every network is challenged with monetizing content, and we want to cut through with shows that still have urgency in the linear environment," says Barnett. "But the changing patterns of consumption really create a long tail for smart, serialized programming. It has currency on many different platforms, it does well internationally, which is great for a network like BBC America."

Recommended articles