Ian Burrell: New cable TV channel opens a window on life in America

Paula Kerger knew she had a hit with Downton Abbey in America after the viral success of "Downton Arby's" – an online spoof which set the period drama in a fast food restaurant selling soda and curly fries. Further US parodies have included the rap-based "The Fresh Prince of Downton Abbey" and a tribute from chat show host Jimmy Fallon, who made an eight-minute short called "Downton Sixbey" (named after the famous Studio 6B in NBC's New York headquarters).

Kerger, who is president of PBS, the nearest American equivalent to the BBC, chose to buy Downton before it had even debuted on ITV but admits to having been taken "by surprise" by the scale of its American appeal. "People have created personalities on Twitter – my favourite is 'Lady Mary's Eyebrows'," she says. "And people have organised viewing parties. The show is beautifully done, it's filmed perfectly it has great characters and is a compelling story."

Downton was dubbed a "cultural phenomenon" and finished its second series with an 8.1m audience in the US, the best ratings for a PBS show since 2009. But while it is helpful for a serious broadcaster to have such mainstream success, Kerger was primarily in London to measure the progress of PBS in Britain and to promote some of the landmark American programming that the channel is offering here.

PBS was launched in Britain last October on Sky and Virgin Media but it is still struggling to get the audience that its content deserves. Richard Kingsbury, its UK general manager, admits that 20,000 is currently considered a good rating, which is a poor return considering the quality of the output.

Of course it doesn't show Downton Abbey in Britain where its star offerings are well-made factual programmes on US and global issues. Kerger seems disappointed that UK viewers are not more familiar with America's greatest documentary maker Ken Burns, a star contributor to PBS. The channel launched here with Burns's series on prohibition and has since shown his epic pieces on jazz and baseball, each set in the context of American social history. "It was interesting to me that Ken Burns – who is such an icon in American television – is relatively unknown here," says Kerger. "He has changed the way documentaries are created [in US TV]. There's the era before Ken Burns and after Ken Burns. His subjects are also quintissentially American and I think he will develop a whole new following here in the UK."

Burns's next PBS project is The Dust Bowl, an examination of the impact of the Great Depression of the Thirties on America's Great Plains. Kerger terms it "the greatest environmental disaster in our history".

A PBS documentary on sprinter Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, will coincide with the 2012 London Olympics, and The Amish, an observational series by UK director David Belton, will be shown in Britain on Sunday after a long-process of winning the trust of the withdrawn Anabaptist community.

PBS's news and current affairs coverage should woo UK viewers. Its hour-long flagship, NewsHour, is an analytic alternative to the partisan sound bites of much US broadcast news. Frontline, which produced an analysis of News International's phone-hacking, is entirely funded by philanthropists (who contribute some 60 per cent of the PBS budget, alongside 25 per cent in corporate sponsorship and 15 per cent from the federal government). An investigation of the global economy, Money, Power and Wall Street will be shown here next month.

Public funding means PBS – a network of local stations in the US – can be attacked by Republicans as too liberal. Kerger says it is also accused of being too conservative. "In the States people are tending to gravitate towards news programmes that reflect their point of view," she says. "[But] we understand the difference between news and point of view."

Science shows such as Nova, have attracted younger audiences. That's important, Kerger says, because "so much of the future jobs market is going to be related to science and technology skills".

PBS cannot compete with the BBC in this country, and nor would it try to do so, but it does offer a similar hallmark of quality and a welcome new insight into American life.