Television viewers in Great Britain, the Middle East, Russia and India could soon be watching American public TV shows, if two initiatives get up and running in the coming months.
The PBS UK channel is being bankrolled by W. David Lyons, an entrepreneurial oilman from Calgary, Alberta. The programming will be assembled by PBS Distribution (PBSd), a partnership of PBS and WGBH that holds international rights to a “significant number” of public television titles, said Jan McNamara, PBS spokesperson.
In a separate venture, Virginia-based MHz Networks, which feeds international content to some 30 American public TV stations on its Worldview multicast channel, will reverse direction with its MHz America package, pushing local shows from at least five pubTV stations and independent producers to foreign markets.
Each could be on the air abroad by year’s end or soon after.
David Bernstein, co-president of PBSd, declined comment through a WGBH spokesperson, and referred questions to PBS.
PBS acknowledged it has hired Richard Kingsbury, former head of two cable/satellite channels owned by British programmer UKTV, as g.m. of the new PBS UK.
The idea actually came from outside public TV — from Lyons, chair and c.e.o. of the Orca Exploration Group Inc., operator of gas fields in Tanzania and developer of an oil field in Italy.
Lyons recalls his childhood fondness for such shows such as Nature and Masterpiece Theatre broadcast cross-border into Canada by KSPS in Spokane, Wash. Decades later, when he began living part time in Britain, Lyons came up with the concept for a PBS channel for the United Kingdom.
Lyons “kept after PBS” for the past few years until it agreed to the project, he told Current. “It’s one of those ideas that should have been done years ago.”
“In my experience in England, people don’t understand America the way they should — the richness of the country,” said Lyons, who has a home in southern England. The PBS UK channel “is one way to communicate that. I hope in some quiet, small way, this will start to shape people’s views about America. And I think it’s going to work, because it’s such high-quality programming.”
Advertisements on PBS UK could provide revenue for PBS — “very clearly a giant motivation” for the network to get involved, he said.
Lyons declined to say how much he’s investing. The backing will come through his Quadra Foundation. According to its website, the foundation “is developing innovative partnerships to create and distribute quality media to encourage individuals to better appreciate and become more engaged with our world.” A previous media project with the Royal Geographic Society, Hidden Journeys, allows air travelers to learn about the geography, culture and histories of places they fly over.
Lyons told Current the PBS UK channel initiative has “lots of entrepreneurial snap.” Entrepreneurs don’t look at short-term financial returns, he said, but rather the fundamental importance of a project. “This could change perceptions between communities on both sides of the Atlantic,” he said. “It’s a great privilege to be associated with programming of that quality.”
In fact, he can’t understand why PBS shows are not more widely distributed. “They should be,” he said, noting there should be multiple PBS channels around the world. “We’re really looking to get feedback in the U.K. market,” he said. “I can see four or five other markets” that could have PBS channels, including Scandinavia and South Africa.
The project “is full of potential,” he said, adding it should be on the air in Britain by the end of the year.
Using built-in alliances
MHz Networks, based in northern Virginia at the non-PBS pubTV stations WNVC and WNVT, has been developing a similar project on a smaller scale. Its MHz America will package programming from at least five stations and several independent producers for foreign broadcast.
Fred Thomas, c.e.o., said MHz is “pretty far along” in talks with several countries in the Middle East as well as Russia and India. It has acquired about 400 hours of content so far, and completed branding and interstitials. “I’d love to place some content overseas by the end of the year,” Thomas said.
Because it has a limited inventory, MHz America would start out as a four- to six-hour block on an existing channel overseas. “We have built-in alliances” in the international broadcasting arena, “so when the material is ready to distribute our friends will help us,” Thomas said. “Most of our programmers we carry are major players, so that’s very helpful.”
A lot of those partners are state broadcasters “so standards are fairly similar to noncommercial in the U.S.,” he said, which may limit advertising but permit sponsorships. “In a couple of places, if it’s popular enough it could be ad-supported. But I don’t view it in that way; it’s more mission-driven.”
MHz America will send the shows over the Internet to save on “serious” satellite distribution costs, Thomas said. “That is what’s expensive — getting content from the U.S. to other continents.”
Because the MHz America content won’t be streamed online for home viewing— at least not initially — MHz Networks is considering distribution via file sharing, such as File Transfer Protocol (FTP), or a real-time server-to-server hookup. Content could be moved that way to, say, a partner in India, who would then send it out via satellite or transmitters there. “That limits the day-to-day costs,” Thomas said.
For Thomas, the aim is to show the real America to people abroad. “Our approach is to take the multiculturalism of America and present that overseas,” he said, “anything to counteract the ‘Hollywood-only’ version of the U.S. that so many people see.” A similar objective drove Nebraska ETV’s CPB-backed Heartland*USA overseas syndication initiative in the 1990s.
Thomas agrees with Lyons’ view that American programming can mold attitudes toward the U.S. worldwide. Thomas recalls a conversation with State Department officials a few years ago: “They were saying that if people in the Middle East could see an American town council being questioned by citizens, in an open dialogue, that type of program would be revolutionary,” he said.
While public affairs shows of that type may be considered deadly dull by most Americans, “they present the notion of, that’s what America is really like,” Thomas said.
PBS UK channel to launch in Britain Nov. 1
PBS is looking for advertising partners for its first international channel, according to the British-based Mediaweek news site. The PBS-branded channel obtained its commercial Ofcam broadcast license and will initially be available to more than 9 million households on the Sky Digital platform; carriage negotiations also continue with Virgin Media.
Initial content will include major program strands such as Nova, American Experience and Frontline. Filmmaker Ken Burns' six-hour Prohibition series will have its international premiere on the channel.
"This initiative is a logical next step in creating wider distribution for PBS programs," network spokesperson Anne Bentley told Current, "and the vision is to include most major icon series, as well as other films and specials, presenting the best of American culture to the UK."
The channel's general manager, Richard Kingsbury has hired two staffers from his former employer, UKTV: Katie Cook is heading up programming, and Rebecca Edwards is overseeing public relations and marketing.
Fifteen years ago, CPB backed the Heartland*USA tryout of exported pubTV shows overseas. Nebraska ETV and Chicago-based Central Educational Network, partners in the project, cited motivations similar to those of the 2011 ventures..
MHz America is the latest channel for MHz Networks — a channel for exports, not imports.
The New York Times reported on plans for the PBS UK channel.
The backer of the PBS UK channel, W. David Lyons, is chief executive of Orca Exploration Group Inc., with gas and oil projects in Tanzania and Italy.
The Quadra Foundation is a nonprofit affiliate of W. David Lyons’ Quadra Group.
The Hidden Journeys project, a collaboration of the Quadra Group and Britain’s Royal Geographical Society, developed maps and other materials about the land and people below 10 flight paths for the information of airline passengers. The project encourages travelers to submit their own photographs.
NPR's overseas channel, NPR Worldwide, reaches dozens of countries by satellite and rebroadcast.