PBS America

With the global distribution of U.S. television shows, does Britain need to see more programming from “across the pond,” as the saying goes? PBS America thinks so.

As a broadcasting entity, PBS was almost unheard of in England before PBS America launched two years ago on Sky and Virgin Media services offering  “the best award-winning and globally respected programming from across the pond. We marry the best new shows with treasures hand-picked by a British team from PBS’s extensive archive.”

What’s most interesting about PBS America is that as PBS shows fly across the ocean, they are no longer not-for-profit programming. PBS America shows advertising, and the Sky and Virgin Media services on which it airs thinks it can do more than just educate and enrich. In other words, PBS America is a commercial endeavor in the U.K.

The channel repackages programs as distinctly American but not like the mainstream American situation comedies and police procedurals. The programming line-up will look familiar to regular PBS viewers. Boston-based WGBH is well represented, with shows such as NOVA, America’s Test Kitchen, American Experience, and FRONTLINE. PBS America also recently picked up 88 hours of America-themed nonfiction programming, including JFK, Central Park Five, and Makers: Women Who Make America. The famous Ken Burns epics The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz also appear among the offerings. The Civil War even ran as a marathon showing on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

While this kind of exchange might appear unique, the two countries have a history of sharing or adapting programming. Some of the reality shows that have dominated U.S. schedules have origins in the UK. Britain’s Got Talent, MasterChef, and Idol all are formats tailored for audiences in the United States and other countries as well. PBS has a long-running relationship with the BBC, dating back to its days as the NET and continuing today. Masterpiece, for example, has been running since 1971, and it is now home to the hits Call the Midwife and Sherlock.

But PBS in the United States and the BBC in the U.K. come from very different media systems. The BBC started as a government service, and the media industry there experienced commercialization later. The U.S. media system, however, started with commercial interests and has been dominated by them since, with public broadcasting becoming formally recognized 40 years later with the passing of the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967. The U.S. government allocated $445 million for public broadcasting in the 2014 fiscal year. In contrast, the BBC budget from license fees was £3.7 billion ($6.0 billion) in 2013.

While both operate in the public interest in their respective countries, the budget differences reflect the media systems’ differing priorities. As PBS America continues, it will be interesting to see how the channel programming options build on the American theme.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.