PBS UK lifts off

In anticipation of today's launch of PBS UK, channel head Richard Kingsbury and his small team had approximately three months to get the pay TV channel on air. "We're actually quite relaxed," he tells realscreen.
November 1, 2011

Richard Kingsbury was previously running UKTV channels Good Food and Yesterday before he was tapped by PBS in the U.S. to helm PBS UK, a joint venture between Boston-based PBS Distribution and Canadian investor David Lyons.

The commercial pay TV channel, available via Sky and Virgin, is launching today in the UK to about 13 million homes. Kingsbury was brought on board for the venture in June, while the remainder of his four-member core team joined in August.

“The full team has had effectively three months to get the channel up, but we’re actually quite relaxed. When you’ve got a very small team that can make decisions, you can move very quickly,” he says.

One of the main challenges of starting from scratch has been to create buzz for the PBS brand in a country where awareness for the U.S. pubcaster is small. Thankfully, PBS UK has the full support of PBS U.S. president and CEO, Paula Kerger, who came over three weeks ago to the UK to tout the new channel. “Paula [Kerger] has put her personal support behind the launch,” says Kingsbury. “She’s very excited about it.”

With all of the prep work behind them, the PBS UK crew will ring the new network in with a documentary from PBS’ ‘Nova’ strand – Smartest Machine on Earth, which tells the story of ‘Watson,’ an IBM computing system that challenged human contestants on a game of Jeopardy! The rest of the new network’s catalog will consist of PBS Distribution fare, including more from ‘Nova,’ as well as other popular PBS strands such as ‘American Experience,’ ‘Frontline’ and ‘PBS NewsHour,’ which will be scheduled for primetime.

In addition, the mixed genre channel, operating under the tagline “Where Television Matters,” will also air the PBS U.S. version of Antiques Roadshow, some children’s programming and food content, and will also feature PBS documentary specials, such as Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Prohibition.

Unlike its American counterpart, PBS UK will be taking advertising, with Channel 4 sales as its exclusive advertising sales representative.

At the moment, all of the network’s content will be acquired from PBS Distribution, and Kingsbury says it’s too early in the game to determine whether it will commission or acquire UK-produced content down the road.

“We’re focused on getting the channel up, secure and viable, and then we can start thinking about grander plans,” he says.

One of the key considerations for Kingsbury and team is what UK audiences will enjoy watching, when the content is coming from an American supplier. “We see ourselves as British curators of this program pipeline, and we’re looking at the output and the catalog and thinking, ‘Yes, there’ll be an interest in that,’ [or] ‘That will probably be too domestic,” he offers.

Kingsbury says that British audiences are interested in U.S. programming covering big topics of international interest, such as 9/11, al Qaeda and the American financial crisis. However, he says he will take a pass on docs that aren’t as universal, such as programs focused on American historical figures that aren’t necessarily household names in the UK.

“[In] my experience of playing PBS content on other channels, people don’t mind where programming comes from as long as it’s a good story and it’s got some relevance for them,” he says.

“I think PBS is going to be distinguished [from other channels];  it’s in an interesting space,” he continues. “Most channels are moving toward entertainment formats, even if they’re factual channels and that leaves a space for channels that have a bit more ambition in terms of telling people something, inspiring people or providing a different perspective.

“I think a lot of it is about passions. PBS content goes deep on a lot of individual subjects that a lot of people care about.”

About The Author
Senior staff writer Frederick Blichert comes to realscreen with a background as a journalist and freelance film critic. He has previously written for VICE, Paste Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Xtra, Canadian Cinematographer and elsewhere. He holds a Master of Arts in film studies from Carleton University and a Master of Journalism from the University of British Columbia.