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Why Its UK Influence Has Allowed BBC America to Be Ahead of the Curve as a 'Very Auteur-Oriented Channel'

Indiewire By Aaron Dobbs | Indiewire September 5, 2013 at 11:03AM

In the first installment of an ongoing interview series with network heads, Indiewire catches up with BBC America's Perry Simon.
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'Doctor Who'
BBC America 'Doctor Who'

For most of the television era, American audiences who wanted to watch programming from across the pond were at the mercy of their local PBS affiliates. But in 1998, the BBC jumped into the widening cable universe, bringing some of its own series as well as popular fare from British networks ITV and Channel 4 to the U.S. market via BBC America. The channel's highest profile show remains the 50-year-old "Doctor Who," which recently announced Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, but in recent years, the channel has also embarked on its own original programming strategy, with unscripted fare like "The Nerdist" and "Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan" and UK co-productions like "Ripper Street" and "In the Flesh."

BBC America has created its biggest splash by jumping into the original programming pool on its own and succeeding with both critics and audiences. The New York period drama "Copper" wraps-up its second season on September 22, and during its first season earlier this year, sci-fi series "Orphan Black" quickly gained an enthusiastic and dedicated fan base. The show became one of the big attractions at this year's Comic-Con, and both fans and some critics decried the Emmy "snub" of "Oprhan Black" star Tatiana Maslany. The show will return for a much-anticipated second season next spring.

Perry Simon became General Manager, Channels for BBC Worldwide America and the head of programming for BBC America in 2010, after years as an integral part of NBC's programming team and as the President of Viacom Productions. In the first of what will be a regular series of interviews with network heads, Indiewire spoke with Simon about the evolution of the network, the ascension of "Doctor Who" and why BBC America is a "very auteur-oriented channel."

Perry Simon
Perry Simon

How do you feel the expectations of TV audiences has changed over the past five-to-20 years, and how does BBC America's original programming -- especially series like "Copper" and "Orphan Black" -- fulfill those expectations?

I think audiences are continuing to become increasingly discriminating and discerning, particularly with genre programming, and you're seeing that in the quality and quantity of drama offered in cable TV. Our goal is to tell quality stories with complex characters that bring something new to the conversation, and we have decided that one of the ways to increase the profile of the channel is to introduce some of our own signature programming like "Copper" and "Orphan Black." The volume of [BBC UK] co-production activity has also increased, and I think all of it is unified by a desire to have quality television that speaks to our brand and to our audience.

How would you describe the characteristics that define a BBC America series, particularly the ones you're developing and producing on your own?

It really comes back to outstanding storytelling and provocative, interesting and memorable characters; shows that feel like they can cut through the clutter. There is so much out there that unless something about the show makes it distinctive and will get some attention, it will be very hard to bring an audience to it.

We look for things that -- even if they may be homegrown -- have that BBC DNA. We like to look for UK connectivity. It's not a must-have, but we look for something that speaks to the bi-cultural nature of our channel. "Copper" is so rooted in the immigrant experience, and in "Orphan Black," its two primary characters are from the UK.

It seems that every network has one or two niche competitors pursuing the same demographic audience. Who, if anyone, do you consider BBC America's main competition? And how does the programming on other channels play into your programming strategy?

'Orphan Black'
'Orphan Black'

We don't think in those terms. We really think in our own terms about what it is we're trying to accomplish; what we're trying to bring to the audience. I'm less focused on any other specific competitors. Obviously I look at what other people are doing, and I look at their programming. I want to be aware of those things, but it's not like we're in a specific competition with any other specific channel. BBC America by its very nature is in a category and class of its own, and we're proud of that.

Thanks to digital technology such as DVRs and online streaming, the basic format of TV programming seems to be shifting, making it easier for audiences to choose how they watch their stories: episode-by-episode or in one big weekend binge. This shift seems to have occurred concurrently with an expansion of more sophisticated and serialized storytelling that pushes boundaries. Where does BBC America fit-in to this storytelling evolution?

Interestingly, we were probably a bit ahead of the curve because the kind of quality programming the BBC has been producing over the years is representative of where a lot of television in America is now going. These shorter-form, serialized runs have been a staple of UK television well before they started becoming a more popular trend here.

I think it comes down to what's the right format for the particular story you're telling, and that's often in the hands of the writer. We are a very auteur-oriented channel, just as the BBC and UK television in general tends to be. The writer/creator of the show will often say, "I feel I've got six episodes," or, "I think this is appropriate for 14 episodes over three seasons," because that's the way the story naturally plays out; that's the way the person with the vision naturally sees it. As opposed to having other considerations -- be they economic, logistical or scheduling-related -- it really starts with the creative vision of the show dictating what kind of format it's going to take. 

Another way the UK was a little ahead of us is that when you do shorter form programming, you're able to attract talent that might not be able to otherwise commit to multiple seasons. Feature film talent, for example, or in the UK, they do so much stage work. I admire tremendously that in the UK talent can move so seamlessly from film to television to stage and sharpen their skills in all those platforms.

'Copper'
'Copper'

How do you see these storytelling formats continuing to develop? 

In the case of BBC America, I see a balance emerging. We're going to continue to have the shorter form content that fulfills the kinds of things that I've described, because they are such a staple of UK television, but we also have an ongoing commitment to longer-running, returning series. We're going to continue to pick each show on its own terms and figure out what is the appropriate format and length to tell those stories.

More frequently, we're seeing people from outside the world of television -- filmmakers, playwrights, longform journalists, radio producers -- developing series. What is BBC America's approach to seeking out new voices for your scripted projects?

We like to cast a wide net and look for original voices that can bring something new to the conversation, and as different technology platforms emerge, it's offering opportunities for creative talent to express their art and voices in different, engaging and innovative ways. A channel like BBC America, which has always been at the vanguard, prides itself for doing things that are new, different and provocative. It's very natural for us to want to continue to work with emerging talent as well as established ones.

Is your approach from this perch at BBC America any different than when you were programming and producing for broader broadcast TV at NBC and Viacom?

The fundamentals are the same, but just adapted to whatever the contemporary audience tastes and social trends are. Whether it was at NBC, Viacom or now here at BBC America, I'm looking for great stories, great characters and programming that's going to feel fresh and provocative.

We are very committed to not doing the same things that other people are doing. We want to be trendsetters. Now more than ever, there's so much competition for people's time, and there's so much clutter in the marketplace, if you don't have something that feels fresh, provocative and interesting, then people just aren't going to make the effort to seek it out.

'Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan'
'Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan'

But the broadcast networks cast a huge net for scripts and produce dozens of pilots, winnowing down their options from there. Since BBC America won't produce nearly as many pilots and must be far more selective, does that alter the way you approach the overall process? 

We clearly don't have the volume that an NBC has, but what we do have is a very well-defined brand and a very strong relationship with our audience that allows us to really dig in to who they are and what they're looking for.

I mean, if you look at our channel, we've got the highest median income and education of any channel in all of television, which is really very defining for us. It enables us to bring the kind of quality programs to our audience that they've come to expect from us. So while we may not have the volume of the big broadcast networks, I think we have a very clear vision of who we are and who our audience is.

'Luther'
'Luther'

Since you had this built-in brand and all the BBC and UK programming was new to America, what prompted the move into more homegrown original programming, as opposed to simple acquisitions or even BBC co-productions? Do you envision your original slate growing in the next few years?

We embarked on the strategy because the BBC does have a commitment to growing the channel here in the U.S., and I think we've all seen over the past decade or two that the way cable channels grow is by developing signature original programming that brings them to that next level of attention. "Copper" became the first on the scripted side, and "Orphan Black" was the second. We are going to continue to add to the slate and we have a number of projects in the works that we're considering for the next round of originals. It is our strategy to keep building.

What is BBC America's relationship with its BBC siblings? Most of your programming comes from there and obviously the channel possessed this built-in brand from the outset before it produced or co-produced anything. 

We've been doing this for a long time with the BBC so it's become second-nature now in terms of the intersection between the programming that's produced for the UK and the programming that also makes sense to bring over to the U.S. As we work even more actively with them in the co-production space, that dialogue is more vibrant than ever.

'Atlantis'
'Atlantis'

The BBC primarily serves the UK audience; BBC America is designed to speak to the American audience, but through the BBC voice. It's very much a collaboration. 

Do you and your creative staff collaborate creatively on the co-productions throughout the development and production process?

Yes, we do. On shows like "The Musketeers" and "Atlantis," we start working with them quite early in the process in order to support them and develop those intersections that suit both our audiences.

Your first two original series have been successful both critically and with audiences, but "Orphan Black" seems to have truly surpassed expectations. Why do you think it developed such a fervent following so quickly?

It's just breakthrough television. You've never seen a show where one actress plays six different characters the way Tatiana does, and that's the reason she's getting all this incredible awards attention with the TCA Critics Choice and Young Hollywood [awards]. It's because she's a brilliant actress, and she is able to demonstrate her talents in a unique concept and vehicle.

It seems like both "Doctor Who" and BBC America received boosts when the channel took over airing the series a few years ago, but the rebooted series' first four seasons had been playing in the U.S., and the original shows aired on PBS stations with a small but dedicated following in the 1980s. Why do you think "Doctor Who" has suddenly exploded in popularity now, and so much more so than during its original incarnation?

I think it's a combination of things. First of all, the show is not just reaching new levels of excitement and fan reach in the U.S., but globally as well. More and more people are discovering it and on a generational basis. One generation grew-up on it and now they're passing on that excitement to a new generation. 

When it came over to BBC America a few years ago, it became a major corporate priority for us to increase the profile of "Doctor Who," and we've been very aggressive in getting out there from a marketing standpoint and making people aware of the show; helping them find it and sample it.

'Top Gear'
'Top Gear'

Ultimately, it's the show itself. I mean, the show has been absolutely brilliantly executed, and I think it's fresh and different. There's a lightness and a spirit to it that is so unique. That's what gives me such great joy being associated with the show. It's truly family viewing, and yet it's very smart. It plays to an adult audience as well as it plays to a younger audience. It's just been firing on all cylinders creatively, and I think the world is looking for fanciful escapist programs that also have an intelligence to them. 

You made a choice two years ago to broadcast "Doctor Who" on the same dates as it premiered in the UK, but that seems to still be the exception rather than the rule. Why not offer more same-day broadcasts worldwide for everything?

There are logistical things that come into play, but suffice it to say we look to air as close to the UK as we can. "Top Gear" now airs more closely than it ever has before. "The Graham Norton Show" airs more closely than it ever did before. It's always our goal to do that, but sometimes there are some logistical issues that make it a bit a tricky.

And all I can tell you is mark your calendar for November 23 because ["An Adventure in Space and Time" airing on] the 50th Anniversary "Doctor Who" is going to be incredible.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, BBC America, Perry Simon, Doctor Who, Orphan Black, Network Interviews