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Small Town America: don’t ignore local TV

British drama is currently the toast of Los Angeles and New York, with shows like The Missing from the BBC and Starz and ITV’s Grantchester launching recently to great critical acclaim, following on from the success of Broadchurch.

The major cable channels backing of original UK drama is big news – whether it’s in the original British format or as a remake, and these big drama events get a lot of attention in the UK and US trades; justifiably so.

But – just outside of the headlines – there is another home for British drama, a very appropriate long-term proposition in fact, which doesn’t generate much noise over in the UK at all.

Public television in the US is a complicated tapestry of local and regional stations feeding into the PBS Network. In Britain we are generally only aware of WGBH, the Boston PBS affiliate, with its Masterpiece drama strand the home of Downton (and which recently announced an increased commitment to British drama); and WNET in New York for documentaries.

The rest of the country exists quietly below the radar, but combined, the 300-plus local PBS station affiliates offer national coverage and a loyal following. They are not necessarily driven by finding the next new big thing, but are rather looking to savour quality drama uninterrupted by commercial messages; ideally allowing their audiences to enjoy these shows over a number of seasons.

Individually, each station would not trek to Cannes for MIPTV or indeed excite your average distributor with an enormous email licence fee offer. But the combined audience numbers and fees rack up nicely and provide a great platform for UK drama in the US.

Late last year, I was invited to attend the American Public Television Fall (APT) Marketplace in San Diego. APT is the main agency that sources suitable programmes for the local PBS affiliate networks, in addition to WGBH and, of course, PBS itself. The APT Marketplace is public TV’s “upfront” equivalent, designed for buyers at the stations, aiding, filtering and purchasing from the UK. My hosts were Cynthia Fenneman, CEO of APT since 2001, and her team including Jamie, Eric and Nelsa – who do venture to Cannes and are fonts of knowledge on British TV series through the ages.

Combined, the 300-lus local PBS station affiliates offer national coverage and a loyal following. They are not necessarily driven by finding the next new big thing, but are rather looking to savour quality drama

Our Midsomer Murders is one of the most popular shows for APT – and John Nettles, the first Inspector Barnaby – was guest of honour. Public television in the States is Anglo-friendly. A live British passport holder who doesn’t like Downton is incomprehensible at this event – it’s on a par with treason. Quietly and over the last five years, the local stations’ following of Midsomer has built to more than 40 key stations (lesser stations occupy University campuses etc), including many major cities. After this recent trip and a concerted marketing push, we anticipate adding at least another 30 stations, particularly as this trip upped Midsomer to a “Pledge Status” show.

The pledge system is interesting and alien to us in the UK. In order to sustain commercial free television, the PBS stations advertise their need for funds directly to the viewer, in the form of an actor appealing to the better nature of the viewer to pick up the phone/go online and pledge cash to keep the stations going and commercial free – and to aid the purchase of more quality British drama and documentaries.

You can even pledge to the station in your last will and testament; and people do – a lot and regularly. As a result for many stations, the “pledge” funding equates to between 35-65% of revenues and a Pledge Status show, with its accompanying trailer, is an attractive proposition to these buyers at APT.

The support we were able to give to this was hugely appreciated; a long morning spent in San Diego University’s impressive sound stage filming idents and pledges brought forth a line of genuinely thankful station managers, from Alaska to Wisconsin via Indiana. All thanks to John Nettles who delighted the crowd in an interview with WGBH station manager Ron Bachman.

Midsomer started out life in the US on A&E. Strategies and times changed and British drama moved to Biography and many came off cable altogether. As a result Midsomer, along with a lot of other good British dramas lost a valuable platform in the USA. We decided to place Midsomer via APT, in the hope that audiences across the US would build over time.

This has proved to be a very viable long-term strategy in terms of coverage for the show’s back catalogue. We are looking for longevity, as every distributor should in terms of exploiting its assets fully – and the PBS opportunity is not to be scoffed at. The early episodes of Midsomer still sit well on the local stations of PBS, fifteen years after their first outing in the UK. Our co-host in San Diego, Acorn, supplies the country with new episodes on DVD and via their SVOD service nationally. Netflix also takes the series.

So our own carefully crafted tapestry of platforms for the show, plus the invaluable support of our partners, should ensure it’s on air for at least a further decade – in its original form – with each new season eagerly anticipated by its loyal PBS fans.

Rachel Glaister, senior VP, press & marketing, All3Media International