BBC America Comes To Cable

Dateline: October 5, 1998

A few select cable systems in the United States are now offering BBC America, and clearly the Beeb have their eyes on widening that market (according to a Christian Science Monitor article on September 11th). But is it really worth the wait?

The question I am most often asked is, Why doesn't some genius set up a satellite dish to pick up programs from England and put them on cable here in the United States? The answer is there are too many hurdles to make this realistic, at least for the moment. First, the earth is a very large planet. Even if you were to put a dish on the coast of Newfoundland, Canada Britain and its satellites are too far below the horizon for line-of-sight reception. Secondly, prime time in England would occur during the middle of the day in the US when most people are still at work. Third, there are five terrestial broadcasters operating in Britain currently. Who would decide which series would have precedent over the other? There would also have to be a "blackout" of the numerous American series which run on British television for which the rights wouldn't exist for retransmission abroad. Finally, most producers in England already have their series tied up in distribution deals with existing American outlets like A&E, PBS, and The Discovery Channel.

Meanwhile, we have BBC America attempting to fill this gap, but as it now stands its content is too much like a public television station - and a second-rate station at that.

First of all, there isn't a very wide selection of material on BBC America. Their entire schedule is repeated during the day, which means fewer than 12 hours of original material (beats Infomercials late at night I suppose!). And then there are the commercials. Oh yes, lots and lots of commercials. A typical episode of Lovejoy had ad breaks at 10, 20, 36, and 44 minutes past the hour, with the show ending at 51 minutes, with 9 minutes of filler to pad out the hour. The "Britcoms" (as they are called) are run with three in a two hour slot, one at the top of the hour, the second beginning 40 minutes in, and the third 80 minutes after the first began, with bits of filler added in between. And each comedy has at least two commercial breaks.

Most of the shows are fairly old repeats with the exception of EastEnders, which runs daily episodes a few weeks after their British run, along with half a "classic" episode to fill out an hour slot. And the BBC World News is live and runs 24 minutes uninterrupted. Dramas currently running include the hospital drama Casualty, The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, and Robert Carlyle's Scottish police drama Hamish Macbeth.

Comedies, some dating back to the 1980s, include Blackadder, Yes Minister, One Foot In The Grave, French and Saunders, The High Life, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and Brilliant! (aka The Fast Show).

And then there's Doctor Who. For months BBC America has been showing the same two Tom Baker stories, "Robot" and "Ark In Space" over and over. In October they finally continued the run with further episodes from Baker's first season in 1976. I do have a bone to pick with their promotions for Doctor Who which claim it's "only on BBC America." This would assume one ignores the 16 Public Television regions currently screening the series in the USA also.

Actually, the best thing about BBC America are the "oddball" programs it exclusively offers such as Antiques Roadshow, documentaries, arts shows, and TV Movies with Dawn French. I could go with seeing a lot more of this type of programming, rather than trying to parrot (and poorly at that) a typical PBS station's output (and don't forget PBS also gets access to shows you'll never see on BBC America such as Jeeves and Wooster, Touching Evil, and Inspector Morse - all ITV productions).

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