BBCA Seeks ‘Rarified’ Air

Five months ago, Sarah Barnett moved to BBC America from SundanceTV, after AMC Networks purchased a 49.9% stake and operational control of the network from BBC Worldwide. She’s looking to build up the network’s reserve of quality original tentpole programming that appeals to affluent adult viewers aged 25-54. Barnett — who began her TV career at “the Beeb” in the 1990s — spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead ahead of the April 18 third-season launch of the hit drama Orphan Black.

MCN:How would you define the BBC America brand?

Sarah Barnett: The brand is in a very healthy place and it has a lot of equity built into it. I think the BBC America brand is strong and that is enhanced by quality original programming such as Orphan Black, Broadchurch and Luther that sits in somewhat rarified air even in the landscape of quality TV that exists today. So BBC America is a great place to be right now, but [the TV environment] allows us to ask some very interesting questions about how we evolve the brand and the content for the next chapter. There’s something very interesting in the original content we’re developing that isn’t necessarily about being British but about this idea of being a little outside the mainstream that, I think, is a really exciting access point for this brand.

MCN:So are you looking to develop original content that’s more Americanized than some of the shows that we’ve seen on the network?

SB: I think BBC America will always have at its core some characteristics that are true BBC qualities, like creative courage and risk-taking. It will always have these core BBC qualities that help to make it stand out to compete and have vitality within the incredibly competitive American marketplace where the bar is super-high and the audience is quite demanding.

MCN:Who is BBC America’s target audience?

SB: It’s slightly male but younger than the cable average. They are an extraordinary, desired audience — they overconsume content on many platforms; they are tech-savvy, they’re high-earning and really passionate about storytelling.

MCN:How many original shows do you expect to offer on BBC America over the next year?

SB: There is a very robust development pipeline and we definitely plan to continue to have this be a place where people can try out different original content. The ambition is to find more franchises like Orphan Black that we can bring back year after year and continue to feed our audiences through social platforms.

MCN:Who do you consider as competitors for BBC America?

SB: I think we find ourselves alongside the FXs, the Nat Geos and the Discoverys in the upper tier set of networks.

MCN:What do you see as the industry’s biggest challenge going forward?

SB: I think the constant question is how to measure and monetize the increasing number of platforms that consumers are finding and watching content. I think for network groups, it’s how do we live within an existing ecosystem, but generally realizing that change is increasingly baked into the way we do business on a daily basis, and to be flexible and open to change. It’s a very interesting time to be in our industry.