With this month’s 15th anniversary of BBC America, Seth Arenstein spoke with the first head of the network Paul Lee, who remained in that post for 7 years. In a wide-ranging chat, Lee reminisces about the evolution of the network, distribution, loop tapes and a surprise win at the Golden Globes. The British-born and Oxford-educated Lee now is President, ABC Entertainment Group. He seems fully ensconced in America.
Can you believe it’s been 15 years since BBC America was founded?
I haven’t admitted this to myself, but it means I’ve lived in America for 15 years. I guess I am here to stay. As I said to my wife, ‘We’ve been here 15 years. We’re not going home’ [laughter].
So who had the idea to start BBC America?
It was part of an overall deal with Discovery. Discovery, rightly, was interested in what BBC was doing with reality programming, documentaries, shows like “Walking with Dinosaurs” and “Planet Earth.” That was the core of the relationship.
Beyond that, can you pin down the concept of BBC America to a person or people?
There was a man running BBC Worldwide called Dick Emery, and Hugh Williams, who ran [BBC] Television Worldwide and I felt strongly that it was important and very successful for BBC and Discovery to launch a branded channel in the U.S. I came up with the title BBC America. What we said what we were going to do in the U.S. was to launch a channel with news and documentaries, as the BBC has in Britain, but also the crown jewels would be drama series, like “House of Cards,” but also comedies, like “Fawlty Towers.” That was the original idea.
And the title BBC America, was there debate about that?
Yes, quite a bit, because the BBC was not American. But that title had a built-in contradiction in it. So BBC America had a contradiction in it that made you remember it. It also allowed us to create a channel that didn’t represent the BBC as a whole, but one that would have a personality of its own. We got funding from Discovery and they proved to be a wonderful partner and were invested in it.
Talk a bit about the evolution from there.
Actually when we came over [from London to Discovery headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland] we landed on a very cool brand proposition that was different from the original. We said, ‘Why don’t we do HBO with a British accent? Why don’t we lead with the comedy and the cool that Britain was starting to get known for?’ Remember, these were the days of Cool Britannia. They were the early days of Tony Blair and there was something about the British Mini that hadn’t been launched in the U.S. There was a cheeky, cool market about Britain that we were able to sell. So one of the early successes we had when the channel was very small was [the drama series] “This Life,” which gave rise to a number of big stars [including Andrew Lincoln of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and Jack Davenport of NBC’s “Smash,” among others]. It was much, much cooler than the [BBC-made] period dramas that PBS was known for. We built that over time with really, really cool British shows like “The Office.”
What about how BBC America introduced other genres to these shores?
We realized that we could also use BBC America as a platform to introduce whole genres, since there were waves of programming coming across from Europe. British television had been dominated for a long time by reality programming, but it was just starting to come over to American cable and broadcast. So “Changing Rooms,” which we stumbled on about 3 years into BBC America, nobody was really doing makeover television here and we sold that format and it became “Trading Spaces.” And that inspired other makeovers shows. The next wave after that were docu-soaps, which we brought out, and that rolled through cable and now dominates cable. So BBC America proved to be a place to showcase new genres and British humor.
There’s a great story about the first programming on the channel.
What happened was we closed the deal and there were only about 4 people working on the network. And I remember we had to get a 4-hour block on Discovery’s satellite. We closed the deal so close to the time of first airing. And due to that, we only committed to having a 4-hour rolling block [of programs]. We gave the 4-hour tape to my assistant [laughter] and we weren’t convinced the satellite technology would work, so my assistant flew to Denver, Colorado, delivered the tape and within a few hours that was being shown [over and over, every four hours, as BBC America. Incidentally, the first show on that tape was “Middlemarch,” starring Rufus Sewell and Juliet Aubrey. “Antiques Roadshow” also was on that tape.]
Do you remember any other anecdotes from those early years?
Some are unprintable [laughter]. But really it was wonderful. It was a band of young, iconoclastic, entrepreneurial, funny Brits [who] landed in Bethesda, Maryland, which was a fairly conservative neighborhood. It was a band of misfits, but we had a mission and we knew we had a fantastic offering and we knew nobody [in the U.S.] had seen anything like it since the days when PBS put on “Monty Python.” There was a passion from that group of Brits that made those years some of the happiest times in my career.
What about distribution in those days?
Yes, since we knew we had great shows we just had to get some distribution. And all credit to Discovery and [distribution chief] Bill Goodwyn. Discovery backed us. I remember when we first closed the DirecTV deal we went from like 2 homes to 12 million homes and we went crazy. Most of us got extremely drunk. We not only had created and branded a network; not only brought out great shows, but we now had an audience. It was a great time.
Before DirecTV how many homes did you have? What did you start with?
About 4 million, I think. Remember we were a digital network. We really rode the second wave of cable launches. The first wave was the analogue wave. We expanded with the expansion of digital. After DirecTV we expanded with EchoStar and beyond that the cable guys realized [BBC America] was getting a lot of press, it was disproportionately successful. The critics loved it, the shows were influential. We had shows that had been seen on PBS before, but we also were taking to TCA every year brash reality shows, dramas and comedies that were in some cases every bit as good as what was going on in broadcast. And in many cases as sophisticated as what HBO was doing. And if you remember, that’s the point where HBO was really blooming, with “The Sopranos” and “Sex and The City.” BBC America was the underdog, but we were able to hold up shows like “The Office” and “This Life” that were every bit as good as cable in the U.S. And the critics loved it because they saw us as an underdog and they loved the quality of the shows.
Well since our bosses at the BBC were five time zones away from us, we were well behaved in the mornings and not so well behaved in the afternoons [laughter]. Whenever we made party decisions [for parties and events at TCA], we made them in the afternoon, when our bosses had gone to sleep. Seriously, we had good times with the critics, but they also liked us because of the quality of the shows [and talent we brought to TCA].
I would definitely say that. We went to the Golden Globes and we stuck all the way in the back next to the toilet. But we were thrilled just to be in the same room with Jack Nicholson. Looking at “The Friends” table, which was right next to the podium, I remember thinking they don’t have a long walk there. But I remember when our name was called [as the Golden Globe winner for best comedy series] we had to make our way all the way up the podium, past the Friends table [the route took the BBC contingent so long, the announcement was made twice]. I also remember when we got up there, [co-creator] Stephen Merchant is what, seven foot, five? And [producer] Ash [Atalla]is in a wheelchair, so the cameras couldn’t get both of them in the shot. People were thinking, ‘How did this unlikely group of Brits beat NBC and HBO?’ But the critics, including you, who had been watching the show, knew it was that good. We were in about 40 million homes then, but people who watched HBO woke up and figured there was something going on [at BBC America] that was every bit as good as HBO. Without the Globes that wouldn’t have happened. We really didn’t think we had a chance to win until the next morning, which is why it was a defining moment.