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

Media Studies

Ian Burrell
Sunday 29 April 2012 22:28 BST

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.


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