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Little BBC America Is Thinking Big

BBC America may be a small network in size, but the British import has lofty ambitions. "We're not out there to be a niche player," says network chief Paul Lee, although, in terms of viewers, that's just about where it is.

BBC America, he contends, has everything viewers are gobbling up on other networks. Want lifestyle shows? There's the BBC's Ground Force
and What Not To Wear. Want comedy? Quirky workplace comedy The Office
has a cult following, and hidden-camera prank show 3 Non Blondes
is on the way. Looking for high-impact drama? Upcoming miniseries Cambridge Spies, a Cold War espionage story, fits the bill.

And then, of course, there's Coupling, the BBC's Friends
-style sitcom that NBC is remaking for its air this fall.

"People in cable spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for broadcast reruns," Lee said. With Coupling, "we have one better, the prerun." He hopes that NBC's Coupling
will drive more viewers to his network to see the original.

But the channel still has a long way to go. Part-owned and distributed by Discovery Networks U.S., BBC America reaches about 36 million homes, roughly a third of all cable households. It's just beginning to get ratings but doesn't publish them widely, so many ad agencies aren't aware of its performance.

Still, the channel is catching on. It got a plug on HBO's Sex and the City, when Miranda was hooked on a romantic drama. And, at last week's Television Critics Association conference in Los Angeles, a large pack of curious critics turned out and a group mobbed Lee after the session. At past press tours, the crowd was half the size.

While most of BBC America's fare comes from the mothership in the UK, the net is dipping into original productions. In August, it will debut Ground Force America, an American version of the BBC's popular outdoor redecorating show.