EXCLUSIVE: Having hit its best viewership numbers ever in 2016 with double-digit growth, the U.S. home of Doctor Who, Orphan Black, Top Gear and more recently Dirk Gentley’s Holistic Detective Agency and the upcoming Planet Earth II is now getting into business with Kevin Smith. “He is attached to write, direct and executive producer a series based on the Sam And Twitch comic book series for us,” BBC America president and GM Sarah Barnett revealed about the new project the Clerks filmmaker has in development with the channel.
“They were originally introduced in Spawn, and it’s Todd McFarlane’s comic book series about these big-city homicide detectives who face a series of super grizzly crimes that are connected to the occult,” Barnett adds. “I bumped into Kevin Smith at Sundance and he is beyond himself excited about this, about the show,” she says of the latest high-profile addition to the channel that AMC Networks has run since October 2014.
This news comes as BBCA readies an ambitious multi-channel launch of the visually stunning documentary series Planet Earth II, hosted by David Attenborough, on February 18. In many ways, Planet Earth II is the kickoff for a diligent 2017 that will also see the Emmy-winning Tatiana Maslany-led clone drama Orphan Black come to an end, a new Doctor Who announced for the long-running Time Lord series, and the debut of the Time Lord franchise’s young adult spinoff Class.
Having run BBCA since November 2014 after a stint atop SundanceTV, Barnett sat down recently to discuss more about the Kevin Smith project, other changes coming to her network, and its recent growth. She also talked about how Orphan Black will end like Mad Men did, and what role fans will play in that and the selection of a new lead on Doctor Who.
DEADLINE: You guys sit as a mid-Atlantic hybrid in many ways but have bucked the trend with some very strong growth in the last year. What do you attribute that to?
BARNETT: I think that part of the change is that, from a broader business perspective of cable TV, BBC America is now part of a broader network group with some good leverage and strength to get on platforms that it may be tougher to get onto as a stand-alone.
There’s also the ability, since I’ve been running BBC America, to tap into not just the powerhouse studio of BBC, but also AMC. Along with the strength of AMC Networks, BBCA is set up in an era of more and more consolidation to have more might, to be part of the mightier pack. So the ability to launch a show like Dirk Gently, which was made by AMC Studios. The DNA of that show is interesting — quite British underlying material, but told from the storytelling perspective in an exciting and maybe somewhat American-like, amped-up way — is a really cool fusion of what I think is very exciting about this brand and this business.
DEADLINE: How so?
BARNETT: First, I think we have great brand strength, and part of our unique ability is that BBCA was not set up to be a sort of super niche network. In that way that probably most, if not all, of our ad supported U.S. cable networks were. BBCA has its distinct DNA, which is informed by a broad mix as an entertainment network. You know, we’re not a sort of offshore version of BBC1 and BBC2, which sit in such a different landscape with such different expectations.
Our ability at BBCA to have a fairly diverse slate and to be able to pivot with that in response to the shift in linear viewing patterns is something quite cool about this network. BBCA was, certainly for me and the team when we all started working together here, a case of really figuring out that just being British isn’t enough for BBCA. We have to maximize and create great stories around the stuff that’s always worked. We have, in a certain sense, some really unique tools at our disposal, I think, or levers to pull in responding to what audiences are watching and what they’re not watching.
DEADLINE: Let’s pivot to something that people have been watching which is Orphan Black, which is now going into its fifth and final season set to debut June 10. This was really BBCA’s first homegrown hit, so how big a hole will its eventual absence leave and how does it all end?
BARNETT: (Laughs) Well, I mean, won’t give away the plot of the story, but I will say the ending will be something that fans will both mourn and feel has a certain kind of completeness to it. For us, we really have spent an amount of time thinking about how do we end this show. I actually think Mad Men was an example of how to end a show that’s much loved in a very particular way and in a way that played to the absolute integrity of the bones of what that show was.
So, with Mad Men, it was sort of about it being TV as art, in a sense, and I think with Orphan Black, the way we want to celebrate it is around the kind of audacity, and innovation, and real smarts, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. There isn’t anything pretentious or precious about the show. It just is its own thing unabashedly, and I think that’s why fans love it so much. So, as we go into it, you know, we have a number of things we’re weighing up that will celebrate the ending of the show in the spirit of what the show is.
DEADLINE: Such as?
BARNETT: Well, a lot of that will be based around thanking, rewarding, and engaging our fans for instance. The Clone Club has just been the prototypical example of fantastic fandom, and I think the network’s relationship with the fan club over the five years has been also an example of just this kind of always-on, really respectful, really listening, understanding, responsive, joyful relationship with a group of fans. So, yeah, we’ll miss all that, and we’ll miss the show. So that’s the energy that keeps us going – there’s the sadness of saying goodbye to Tatiana, and John, and Graham, the showrunners, and that whole cast and the fandom, but also the excitement around the next fresh story to tell on our air and the next unique characters and relationship that we think our audience will embrace. And with all of the depth, and breadth, passion that they did with Orphan Black and Tatiana, hopefully.
It’s about endings and beginnings. We’re also excited about Dirk Season 2 and also Killing Eve, which we start shooting in London and Europe later this year, and we’ll air it at some point to be determined in the first half of next year.
DEADLINE: There’s a lot of change coming to BBCA on-air with the end of Orphan and a new Doctor on Doctor Who. What else are you eyeing to get in the pipeline to maintain that energy you mentioned?
BARNETT: Well, we’ve got some high-profile talent that we have attached to a show that we’re doing. It’s Kevin Smith. We’re super excited about him. Obviously, he is attached to Comic Book Men in the family on AMC. He is attached to write, direct and EP a series based on the Sam And Twitch comic book series for us.
“They were originally introduced in Spawn, and it’s Todd McFarlane’s comic book series about these big-city homicide detectives who face a series of super grizzly crimes that are connected to the occult. Its kind of frightening and sort of gallows humor. It’s, again, procedural, but in a very modern, contemporary way. So each episode is closed ended, although there are certain character-serialized aspects to the storytelling.
DEADLINE: So when could we expect to see that go to air, and how many episodes are you looking at?
BARNETT: It’s just in development right now. But I bumped into Kevin Smith at Sundance and he is beyond himself excited about this, about the show.
DEADLINE: On a more immediate level, after its well-watched debut in the UK last November, you guys have the premiere of the David Attenborough-hosted nature documentary series Planet Earth II on February 18 — not just on BBCA but simulcast on AMC and Sundance TV too. Big launch, but how will you gauge the success of the show off that compared to the reaction in the UK?
BARNETT: Well, we give ourselves a certain freedom with the launch of this show because the landscape is so different here to there generally. Certainly, when you compare the share that BBC1 has, even on a moderately good day, it’s the equivalent of all of the broadcast nets here put together. So BBCA sits in a very different place, and this wasn’t just a moderately good day for the BBC. You know, Planet Earth II blew it out of the water. I think they knew they had something amazing.
The original back in 2006 was extraordinary and did well, but this show in the UK throughout the holidays was a cultural phenomenon. I mean, 25% of the population watched it as it aired, and half of the population watched it in a [Live+7] consolidated sense. So absolutely amazing. I think what we’re excited about is the transcendent nature of this content. So stats and actual volume of viewership aside, we have real ambition and belief that this show is remarkable and is at the perfect moment to resonate right now. So that’s how we’re approaching it.
The fact that this show is remarkable, and I think it taps into a remarkable moment where people of any side of what feels like a big divide, actually, I think are craving something that unifies us, but transcends, and I think there’s something about nature and something about connecting with the planet that we all share that truly lifts you up and reminds us all of our shared experience on this planet. You know, David Attenborough talked about it as being like a kind of therapy.
DEADLINE: Speaking of therapy, a lot of Doctor Who fans may be getting some with the news that Peter Capaldi will be exiting as the Time Lord at the end of this year. Obviously, a new Doctor is nothing new on a series that has regenerated 12 times over the decades, but what concerns do you have as your flagship show goes though big changes on both sides of the camera with showrunner Steven Moffat also set to leave?
BARNETT: Honestly, I think it’s a really exciting time. I look at the energy that happens between the Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi handover in 2013. But I think that for this franchise, these sorts of endings and beginnings become incredible moments of celebration and re-engagement. I think that Peter brings such extraordinary acting chops, pathos, certain Bourdain-like rock-and-roll cool and just genius interpretation for the Doctor. We’ll all really miss him, but it’s a show that constantly is changing and evolving.
DEADLINE: So who do you think should be the next Doctor?
BARNETT: Well, I think, honestly, just the buzz, the conversation, the speculation, the crazy, spontaneous celebrity and non-celebrity fans auditioning online for who will be the next Doctor is a testament for how this show and franchise lives in pop culture and how real and meaningful it is. So we’re looking forward to watching, and maybe prodding, and stimulating all of the conversation with our fan base around the change that’s going on with Doctor Who.
DEADLINE: You didn’t offer a candidate…
BARNETT: Well, David Tennant said that he thinks it should be Olivia Colman, who is stupendous.
DEADLINE: Nice Broadchurch drop-in there. What about the BBCA expansion of the Doctor Who franchise with the April 15 debut of Class, right after the Time Lord’s new season. This is a new move for Who and you guys…
BARNETT: You know the premise of the show is who keeps the world safe when the doctor isn’t there? Which is a brilliant premise for a young-adult, necessarily, renegade show that focuses on that scary, thrilling period between child and adult, and it’s based in the mythology of the Coal Hill School and the thinning and weakening of the membrane, the time/space continuum, because of all the activity that’s gone on there.
DEADLINE: Class has already launched online in the UK last year and in Canada, where it drew mixed reviews. Does that worry you?
BARNETT: I think there’s a lot for audiences to love. I also think in a world of shifting viewing patterns, there’s something really interesting about the closed-ended nature of each episode — similarly to Doctor Who, although they play with sometimes two-episode arcs. That’s kind of cool here, and I think with the lead-in Doctor Who, that was great opportunity to launch a new show that will be fantastically unique and have a chance to resonate with a real fan group around it.
It airs the same night as the premiere of Doctor Who so we couldn’t give a bigger boost. It’s something that we think our audiences will continue to embrace in the way that they’ve embraced the shows in a way that’s driven the brilliant growth in 2016 and so far in 2017.
DEADLINE: You seem genuinely optimistic despite all the change coming your way in the next 12 months with some of your top shows.
BARNETT: Yes, because from a very solid and encouraging growth in ’16, we sort of bucked a trend. I think we’re really optimistic in terms of what we have coming up here. Look, we’re not a huge network, but we’re not a tiny network either. So I think the kind of growth we’re seeing is really gratifying, and we sort of know what it’s driven by — it’s content that creates our really passionate audiences, and we have more of that coming.