BBC World News to Be Available Through Comcast
The BBC will announce on Tuesday a first-of-its-kind deal for Comcast to carry the BBC World News channel, opening the door to wider distribution for the channel within the United States.
The carriage agreements come nearly a year after the BBC charted a new course for expansion in the United States, where it believes that viewers’ appetites for international news are not being satisfied by the likes of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
“We’re a global news organization for a globalized world,” Peter Horrocks, the BBC’s director of global news, said in a phone interview Monday.
The channel also believes that the United States can be a crucial component of its commercial revenue going forward. While the BBC is subsidized by British taxpayers, BBC World News is commercially supported through ads and distribution fees, just like its bigger sister channel in the United States, BBC America.
Until now, BBC World News has been available in just about six million United States homes, mostly in New York City and Washington.
In the deal with Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, it will be available by the end of the month in some — but not all — of the Comcast homes in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis and other markets. It will come on in some of the company’s markets next year, for a total of nearly 15 million homes by the end of 2012, Mr. Horrocks said.
While that represents just a fraction of the 100 million American homes with cable or satellite subscriptions, it is an important foothold for the BBC, which wants to meet a perceived need for impartial international news.
The way some at the BBC see the television world, Fox News and MSNBC are occupying partisan poles; CNN is struggling to choose between substance and sensationalism; and another foreign import to the United States, Al Jazeera, is tainted by its host country, Qatar.
“We’re very deliberately saying, ‘We’re not going to tell you what to think,’ ” Mr. Horrocks said.
Broadcast into more than 200 countries and territories, the 24-hour BBC World News is sober and hard-nosed by American standards. Some of its newscasts have been carried by public TV and radio stations in the United States for decades, but the broadcaster, like others in the television industry, wants a more direct connection to customers.
Mr. Horrocks said he has been heartened by the popularity of the BBC’s news Web site and by the public TV and radio simulcasts of its programming. And Comcast, he said, “has been very receptive to the argument that there is a market in the U.S. for a much more international perspective on the news.”
Web traffic backs that argument up; by some rankings the BBC is already the No. 1 non-United States news Web site among Americans, though it has been unable to break into the top tier of sites.
In preparation for a push into the American marketplace, the BBC added about a dozen staff members to its Washington bureau earlier this year. (Two weeks ago it hired Dick Meyer from NPR to run its news coverage in the Americas.) It also took its nightly newscast off BBC America, more clearly defining that channel as a source of entertainment, not news.
Now the broadcaster is pitching BBC America and BBC World News to cable and satellite distributors. But getting distribution for new cable channels is exceedingly difficult — even more so than it was in 1998, when BBC America was started. (BBC America was picked up by Cablevision in the New York metropolitan area just a couple of months ago.)
And there is another international news channel knocking on the same distributors’ doors: Al Jazeera English, which was widely credited this year for its coverage of protests in Middle Eastern countries. Although Al Jazeera indirectly secured channel space on Time Warner Cable’s system in New York City last summer, the Comcast deal will give BBC an advantage because it will reach more homes.
Mr. Horrocks declined to comment on the terms of the agreement with Comcast, but said the BBC did not pay for carriage, as other channels have sometimes done to get started. The research firm SNL Kagan estimates that BBC World News earned about 4 cents a subscriber a month last year, and BBC America, 12 cents, far less than CNN’s 52 cents or Fox’s 70 cents.
If the BBC can prove that there is an audience for its news in the United States, it may be able to increase that per-subscriber fee over time.
Probably the least surprised people about the BBC’s effort are those who run the more opinionated news channels in the United States. They actively export CNN and Fox News to other countries. Last week, MSNBC, which is trying to catch up to CNN and Fox in this regard, held a ceremony in Israel to denote its carriage for the first time in that country.
“It’s important that our brand be seen around the world,” said Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC.