Bringing a Brand New Dawn to Sundance Channel

Since being promoted to president and general manager of Sundance Channel a mere two months ago, Sarah Barnett has taken the network’s pace toward original scripted programming from simple steps to a full-blown sprint.

The network premiered its first wholly owned scripted series, Rectify, on April 22. Its coproduced miniseries Top of the Lake, which earned all-around positive reviews from TV critics, debuted March 18. Not even a month after Barnett’s promotion, Sundance announced it had greenlit its second original scripted series, The Descendants, in conjunction with a new “small but perfectly formed” team, as Barnett calls it. The network named Nena Rodrigue head of programming and development; and filled two scripted development and current programming jobs, with Christopher Vesper as senior VP and Jordan Helman as director.

Taking Sundance to the level of sibling network AMC or competitor FX has been a focus of Barnett’s since she was named executive VP and GM in 2009, after which she initiated the network’s push into scripted programming. The first, a coproduction with France’s Canal+ called Carlos, won a Golden Globe and earned two Emmy nominations in 2011.

“That was the moment I realized that scripted on Sundance Channel really had a chance of breaking through,” Barnett says.

Soon, Sundance will break through to an even bigger business when it becomes ad-supported on Sept. 30, joining the ranks of parent company AMC Networks’ successfully shifted networks—AMC, WE tv and, most recently, IFC—with Barnett at the helm.

Leading that charge requires “two essential components,” says Ed Carroll, AMC Networks chief operating officer. “One is to pick the right shows, and the other is to effectively represent those shows to our constituencies. And Sarah has the ability to do both.”

Barnett went through a similar transition before, having worked at BBC America as VP of on-air during the period the channel went from unrated to rated. She had initially relocated to BBC America’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., for a two-year stint away from her home in London, where she worked at the BBC.

“I was at a point in my life where I thought, ‘Why not? It’s a great adventure. I’ll come back to London.’ All my friends said, ‘You’re not going to come back.’”

They were right. Three months after arriving in America, Barnett met her now-husband Chris; after six months, fellow Brit and BBC America founder and then-CEO Paul Lee, Barnett’s boss, asked her to stay.

Barnett had spent 12 years at the BBC in London working in various production and marketing roles. When she arrived at BBC America in 2001, Barnett says, working in the American television business was a “huge rude awakening.”

“In England, television was founded with the BBC, and its mandate was to inform, educate and entertain—in that order,” Barnett says. “TV in America came from show business. Right from its earliest days, commerciality was baked into it.”

She soon got comfortable with the business, diving right into the network’s upfront as part of the marketing department—though at first, she had never even heard of an upfront.

After four years at BBC America, Barnett, now married, decided she did not want to be the “British woman working for an offshore British company,” she says, and joined Sundance Channel as senior VP of marketing in 2005.

Her experience on both the marketing and production sides of the business has helped Barnett think innovatively about the ways to launch Sundance’s new series.

“My marketing instincts led me to not think traditionally about launching a show like Rectify at a small network,” Barnett says, “but to play with some sampling and platform opportunities to have it cut through.”

To that end, the network made the first three episodes of Rectify available on VOD and TV Everywhere platforms a week before its linear launch. In addition, Sundance hosted a “binge screening” of the entire first season in theaters in New York, an experience in which Barnett participated earlier in the year at the Sundance Film Festival, where they screened Top of the Lake in its entirety.

Barnett credits, in part, her ability to think creatively about launching a series to her educational background in art history. Back then, she says, the discipline was more focused on cultural studies, which helped structure her thinking. She received a B.A. in the field at the University of Warwick in the U.K.’s West Midlands, and originally planned on repairing frescoes in Tuscany.

She never did get around to that. After graduation, Barnett—pondering her fresco-repairing options—signed a six-month contract at the BBC, where she had worked as a production assistant and researcher prior to earning her degree. Having grown up in a small village about 70 miles south of London, the television world was the most “glamorous place I’d ever been in my life,” she says.

Her plans to put her degree to use in Italy fell to the wayside while at the BBC; they were totally forgotten when she arrived in the U.S.

But Barnett, who recently moved to upstate New York from Brooklyn, may now have a chance to fully exercise her degree. Living in a town chock full of antique stores (a delight for any art history buff), Barnett says she has become engrossed in the interior decoration of her new home.

That is, when she gets around to it. With the momentum building behind Sundance Channel and Barnett’s dedication to the network, hopefully her home decoration plans don’t go the way of those still-unrepaired frescoes.

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