Ian Burrell: Insights into the US as PBS offers up its documentary credentials

Media Studies

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 parodies have included the rap-based "The Fresh Prince of Downton Abbey" and a tribute from NBC chat show host Jimmy Fallon, who made an eight-minute short called "Downton Sixbey" (named after his famous Studio 6B in New York). 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. It's beautifully done, it's filmed perfectly, it has great characters and is a compelling story."

But while it is helpful for a serious broadcaster like PBS to have such mainstream success, Kerger has been 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 launched in Britain last October on Sky and Virgin Media and is struggling to find the audience its content deserves. Richard Kingsbury, its UK general manager, admits that 20,000 is currently considered a good rating – a poor return for the quality of the output.

Of course it doesn't show Downton Abbey in Britain where its star offerings are its well-made factual programmes on American and global issues. Kerger seems disappointed that British viewers are not more familiar with the work of America's greatest documentary maker Ken Burns, who is a star contributor to PBS. The channel launched here with Burns's mammoth series on prohibition and has since shown his epic pieces on jazz and baseball, each of them painstakingly 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," she says. "He has changed the way that documentaries are created [in US television]. There's the era before Ken Burns and after. His subjects are also quintessentially 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 and what Kerger terms "the greatest environmental disaster in our history".

PBS is also planning eye-catching documentaries on Jesse Owens, to coincide with the London Olympics, and "The Amish", which begins in Britain this Sunday and was made by British director David Belton after a long-process of winning the trust of the little understood Anabaptist community.

But, in an US election year, it is PBS's news and current affairs coverage that should make it an attractive television destination for British viewers. Its hour-long flagship NewsHour offers an analytic alternative to the partisan soundbites of Fox News. Frontline, which recently produced an analysis of News International's phone hacking called Murdoch's Scandal, is entirely funded by philanthropists (who contribute around 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 state of the global economy, Money, Power and Wall Street will be shown here next month.

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

Local is the way ahead as Highfield starts a new chapter

When I first met Ashley Highfield six years ago he had just celebrated his 40th birthday with a drive on the French Grand Prix circuit. A cap worn by Jenson Button was perched on his chair at the BBC, where he was working on the BBC iPlayer and hoping to allow us all to access the BBC archive via the internet.

He is not the first figure that comes to mind when I think of a local newspaper office. But then, as the new chief executive of Johnston Press reminds me: "I don't think I'm going into local newspapers, I'm going into local media."

Last week was a difficult one for the head of Britain's second largest regional press company as it announced a "digital first" future in which "few daily print products" would survive until 2020. Hardened hacks might be wary of Highfield's modernising but he doesn't see his environment as alien. "I like a change project," he says. "The iPlayer was very similar, moving a traditional medium – television programmes – into the digital space but without in any way trying to undermine television."

Highfield is also on the board of the British Film Institute, a sector that enjoys tax breaks of a type that could benefit local press. "I don't think it's going to happen any time soon," says Highfield. "But it's something I look forward to discussing with Ed Vaizey."

Ever lost your phone? New app to protect personal data

Mobile phone security is being transformed. In London for a tech conference, Jiren Parikh, head of New Jersey company Snap MyLife, was promoting app technology that allows you to wipe all personal data from your lost phone (having first stored it in the cloud) and to remotely photograph anyone who tries to activate your missing handset.

He recommends features that mean your children's phones send you an alert if they stray beyond a geographical boundary, and a panic button that warns all your friends if you think you're being followed.

i.burrell@independent.co.uk

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Sales Engineer - Cowes - £30K-£40K

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Sales Engineer - Cow...

Web / Digital Analyst - Google Analytics, Omniture

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Sales Perfomance Manager. Marylebone, London

£45-£57k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?