How BBC America Is Defining Itself Beyond British TV

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L-R: Phoebe Waller Bridge, who is creating Killing Eve for the network; Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black; Planet Earth II.

When it premiered in the United States a decade ago, Planet Earth was a bona fide phenomenon. The BBC-produced mini-series, touted at the time as the most expensive nature documentary ever made, racked up huge ratings for Discovery Channel, earned multiple Emmys, and even inspired millions of Americans to upgrade their home theaters so they could enjoy the spectacle of it all in then-fledging high-definition television. On Saturday, an equally lavish sequel, Planet Earth II, debuts — but this time, you won’t find the pretty pictures of natural beauty on Discovery. Instead, the six-part epic will be seen on BBC America, the nearly 20-year-old cable network co-owned by BBC Worldwide and, as of 2014, AMC Networks. It’s a potentially big moment for BBCA, which has already been on a hot streak in recent years with breakout hit Orphan Black and the continuing success of Doctor Who. If the sequel brings in even half the audience of the original, it will dramatically boost BBCA’s ratings over usual levels and expose the network to millions of potential new viewers. Vulture rang up BBC America president Sarah Barnett recently to talk about why Planet Earth II could be essential viewing in the Age of Trump and how she hopes to leverage the series to bring eyeballs to her network’s other shows. We also grilled her about the possibility of a sequel to the almost-over Orphan Black and whether or not she’ll have a say in picking the next Doctor.

The first Planet Earth aired in the U.S. on the Discovery Channel, even though BBC America existed at the time. How did Planet Earth II end up on your network this time?
I don’t know exactly why it moved off Discovery. Discovery, I guess, was going in a different direction. I can’t really speak to their program strategy at that point. But certainly what I can speak to is BBC America’s desire for this kind of show. We’ve committed to a series of what the BBC calls its “landmark natural history shows.” The Hunt last summer was the first of the batch. It did really well for us, double-digit increases off of our [usual prime-time] numbers, and also amazing critical response. That was our inaugural one of these, and a great taster leading up to Planet Earth II.

How many of these will you be airing over the next few years?
We are committed to five of these.

And do you think they’ll be mostly annual, or …
I hope so. That’s the plan. The thing with these shows is they are so long in the making, and the filmmakers’ intention behind them is so driven by telling the best, newest, freshest, most full-of-integrity story that these makers can tell. They’re driven more by that, I think, than any kind of [timeline]. But certainly so far the rhythm has been to have one once a year, and we hope that continues.

So much viewing today takes place in a non-linear fashion. You’ll be making PEII available on your digital platforms, but is the goal really to get people to watch each week, the old-fashioned way?
I think this concept is really interesting. I actually think it has the ability to live and exist on many different platforms and connect with viewers who come to it for different reasons, at different moments. There’s something about Planet Earth II, and the event nature of it, and the simulcast we’re doing across three AMC platforms … at this moment in time, I think there is a craving at a deep level for something that lifts you up and brings people together. We do aim and hope and believe we can drive some kind of gathering-together around viewing this show that does outstrip our regular prime delivery. I think there is something very potent that connects in that message right now.

You seem to allude to this in some of your marketing for the show, where you promote it with the line, “Bigger than our differences.”
It is a sort of through line. And the reason for that is it really does connect with what we saw in the U.K. and how this show had a certain elevating impact on people as they watched it. And I think people, from whatever side of an intense divide, consciously or not, really did want to gather around something shared. There’s something sort of profound about nature, and watching a show about the planet that we all share, that connects with a really cool sense of unity, of coming together. The perspective that something like this show gives you is something we will all enjoy and benefit from and, at some level, maybe, crave.

It seems a bit like a reaction to Donald Trump’s election …
This is really about being as un-partisan as possible. It’s not to do with any side. It’s really about a belief that this kind of storytelling can connect people in a unique way that’s about what we share, not what divides us.

Of course, you’re also a commercial TV network and have some business goals in mind with this show. Will you try to take advantage of the broader audience you’ll likely get by marketing or launching some new or returning shows adjacent to Planet Earth?
Yeah, absolutely. We’re going to be airing a lot of the natural history library programming that we have, including the original Planet Earth and Africa, among others. We also have Top Gear UK coming in the first quarter, a storied BBC franchise that has somewhat broad appeal. And then we have a pretty jam-packed drama lineup in the second quarter: Doctor Who, which is huge for us, plus a spinoff show called Class after that, and the final season of Orphan Black.

What’s Class about?
It’s written by Patrick Ness, who wrote A Monster Calls, among other things. And the premise is: Who keeps the world safe when The Doctor isn’t there? It’s set in a high school that has a place in Doctor Who mythology. It’s aimed at a young-adult audience, so it’s that scary, exciting space between child and adult. It’s a group of kids who are banded together in that Orphan Black sense, kind of a chosen family. They are all dealing with various issues of identity. And it’s great. It’s sort of Monster of the Week, but with a real depth to it.

You’ve been running BBC America for two years now. How has the network evolved, and where do you want it to go?
We had a great 2016. There was a lot of growth. And we’re starting ’17 believing that we’re also going to have a terrific growth story for this year. We’re not a huge network, but we’re not tiny. Certainly in networks that are in 70 million homes and over — and we are in just over 80 million — we’re really bucking the trend with this kind of growth. One of the things we’ve done over the last year or two is to really look at what works and what doesn’t. Because of its legacy and its DNA — coming from the BBC, rather than it being formed in the way that many U.S. cable networks are formed, which is super, super niche — BBCA comes from a place of a quite broad entertainment philosophy around what its shows can be. So we have anything from Graham Norton to a car show to a nature documentary to all sorts of drama. Sci-fi, but also exquisite character pieces. That’s quite unique about BBCA.

And for us — certainly for me — it’s been a case of looking at what works, looking at what doesn’t, and looking at the incredible fandom that accrues around some tremendous programming. We’ve become more and more in tune with our audience, our fan groups, and how they behave. The Clone Club with Orphan Black is probably the poster child for an extraordinary relation that a platform, a distributor, has with its fans. We really privilege talking to our fans in a very particular, thoughtful, and energetic way.

It used to be that one of BBC America’s main selling points was that it was one of the few places Americans could easily get international, and particularly British, TV shows. Now, because of streaming and the way in which Peak TV has encouraged more international co-productions, there are a zillion ways for folks in the States to watch programming from other countries. Is this a blessing or a curse for you? You have more competition than ever, but audiences are also much more accepting of imports now.
Well, it certainly makes us think about how to connect with audiences in new ways. Ten years ago, BBCA and PBS were really the only joints in town where you could find BBC programming. And today that certainly isn’t true, as you said — just from the recent examples of Night Manager on AMC and The Crown on Netflix and Taboo on FX. Those are very recent examples of the more exposed shows that have come from the U.K. on U.S. platforms, but there are many, many other examples. So we realize that just being British isn’t enough because we can’t claim to be the place for most of that content.

We still do have these fantastic enduring franchises, like Doctor Who and Top Gear and nature documentaries. BBC America is still the home for some of the big, iconic, BBC enduring franchises. But on top of that, it forces us to really think about what it is that makes us distinct and why audiences come for us, if it’s not just that it’s the place for British content. And that makes us think a couple of things. Increasingly, some of the slower-form storytelling, the remarkable character-led mini-series that come out of the U.K. and other international territories, probably fit better — from a consumer perspective — in a space where they can binge-watch. As the patterns of linear viewing continue to shift, what we think in response to that is, how do we define, learn from, and be informed by what we know works here?

So what kinds of British, or British-like, shows do you want to do for that audience?
Quality always, but not quality that feels like hard work. If you think of Douglas Adams and the expression of him in Dirk Gently, or Orphan Black, there’s a sort of British characteristic that is one of our more appealing qualities: not always taking ourselves too seriously. The audiences that come to BBC America are those fans that really respond to that witty, slightly subversive storytelling with a certain kind of smarts to it, underneath it all.

One big hit already when you arrived was Orphan Black, which was your No. 1 show last year. This is its final season. How do you fill that gap? And are there any plans for a spinoff?
We don’t replace Orphan Black. There isn’t another show like Orphan Black. The relationship it developed with its fan base from the get-go has endured, with such energy, love, and passion. That’s a great thing, as a network, to have. I do think that a show like Killing Eve, which we start shooting later this year and is launching next year, that’s certainly a show that was developed with an eye on the Orphan Black audience. You have to be informed by what you know and understand about your audience, and who comes to you, and who has a brand affinity. And then you have to let shows be driven by the integrity of what the show is, and who the writer is. I think that [Killing Eve] fits nicely in a BBCA space.

Tell me more about Killing Eve.
It’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who did Fleabag. And we developed with her an hour-long show, which is a drama. It’s fantastic. Well, its promise is fantastic; we haven’t made it yet. It’s a cat-and-mouse story, and they’re both female. One’s a crazy assassin. And there’s a woman at MI-5 who becomes pulled into this obsessive relationship. So it’s fast-paced and thrilling and there’s this incredibly interesting relationship between these two women. It has the kind of humor rooted in the banal that Phoebe Waller-Bridge does so well. So it’s going to be a really interesting show, and quite unique, tonally

That won’t be until 2018, correct?
Yep.

So will there be no direct spinoff, or anything in the universe of Orphan Black? When it’s over, it’s over?
I mean, there are some discussions that we have had about various ideas, but nothing that at any point had any sort of formal reality to it at this point.

There’s a Doctor Who transition coming. Is this more opportunity than risk for you, at least for the next two years or so? You get the buzz of a departure, and the hype for a newcomer.
It’s the nature of this sort of remarkably long-lasting, enduring franchise that has been going for 52 years. It’s the nature of the beast. We will be really sad to say good-bye to Peter [Capaldi]. I think he’s a brilliant Doctor. And the combinations of Steven Moffat and Peter have been such a fruitful chapter for this franchise. But whenever there’s a changing of the guard with the Doctor, you realize how this show fits in pop culture and how much it resonates. There are auditions already online, unrequested by anyone — from Patton Oswalt to a number of regular fans. It’s a mark of the excitement fans feel along with the loss of saying good-bye to a loved Doctor. There’s such excitement about who the next one will be. That’s amazing for a network to have that kind of energy and buzz around a show.

Be honest: Do you or BBC America get any vote at all in the selection of a new Doctor?
I don’t think that this should be a decision that should be made by a very large committee. The incoming showrunner, Chris Chibnall, will have an enormous say, as he should. I think it should be that way. Casting by committee is doomed to failure at the best of times, and certainly something as delicate and impactful as choosing the Doctor, we don’t have input, nor do we lobby to.

Planet Earth II debuts Saturday, February 18, at 9 p.m., on BBC America (with a simulcast on AMC and Sundance TV). Subsequent episodes will air Saturdays at 9 on BBC America only.

BBC America Is Defining Itself Beyond British TV