Don’t you just love “Downton Abbey?” I sure do. As far as TV dramas go, it’s the “British Idol” — the whole package — plot twists, sumptuous costumes, luxurious settings, romance and war.
No wonder two stars from “Downton Abbey:” Hugh Bonneville (Earl of Grantham) and Elizabeth McGovern (Countess Cora, his American wife) were on the guest list at a recent White House dinner honoring British Prime Minister David Cameron. The World War I-era British period drama was a smash hit, earned critical acclaim (including six Primetime Emmy® Awards) and even influenced fashion trends around the world.
The series is just one example of British television that resonates with viewers “across the pond.” In fact, in a typical month, programming originating in Britain accounts for more than a third (approximately 35 percent) of WNED’s primetime schedule (8-11 p.m.).
How does British programming end up on WNED’s airwaves? Some (like “Downton Abbey”) come through PBS, but many are acquired directly from distributors, primarily the BBC. The process often starts at the BBC Showcase each February.
The 2012 BBC Showcase was recently held in Liverpool, England, hometown of “The Beatles.” Six hundred television programmers from around the world attended, including WNED’s VP for Broadcasting and Station Manager Ron Santora, one of 12 delegates from the United States. They were all on a quest to find quality programming — and they sure came to the right place.
Santora and his colleagues had the opportunity to preview and evaluate British television content that the BBC may soon offer for sale outside the UK. I talked to Santora about his Showcase experience.
What did you do at the 2012 BBC Showcase?
RS: For four days, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., we sat in tailor-made “digibooths” watching and rating programming chosen from a palette of options drawn from the [200-plus page] BBC catalog. I watched about 35 programs/series that have all aired on BBC already.
The 12 U.S. delegates then shared their opinions through a debrief session with BBC representatives.
What does the BBC do with this information?
RS: BBC compares everyone’s ratings. Based on this information, they decide which programs to clear for sale in the United States. The BBC incurs clearance costs for each program. They are ultimately looking for sales.
What did you like? What programs stood out?
RS: Some good picks include:
· “Call the Midwife,” a successful drama series set in England in the early 1950s in a lower income area. We all loved it!
· “DCI Banks” a detective series with Stephen Tompkinson (“Ballykissangel”)
· “The Truth about Exercise,” a health documentary with Dr. Michael Mosley
RS: BBC programs are very, very popular. “Downton Abbey” is a good example.
The all-British Saturday night lineup gets ratings that rival anything we air during the week. Thursday nights – largely devoted to British dramas and documentaries – have featured some big hits as well. “Doc Martin” has been hugely popular, as well as the “Poirot” mysteries and “New Tricks” detective series on Saturdays.
How do BBC documentaries fare?
RS: Many include great information that people really need to know, but their success is topic dependent . I look for how they connect with the audience. Recent hits have included “World War II in HD Colour” (a very popular 13-part series), “Britain’s Royal Weddings” and “The Queen’s Palaces.”
Programs about British royalty get good ratings in the U.S. nationwide.
How can BBC best the success of the hit period drama “Downton Abbey?”
RS: Nobody knew it was going to be such a hit. BBC doesn’t commit to a lot of programs at once; if a program works well, they commission more. (Note: Season three of “Downton Abbey” is in production.)
What’s your favorite British program on WNED-TV?