The new emphasis on economy at ABC, CBS and NBC has stirred hopes for bigger profits in London, in the headquarters of the British Broadcasting Corp.
"We're seeing that the networks, getting new owners, are becoming more cost-conscious. There may be some opportunities there," said James Arnold-Baker, the new chief executive of BBC Enterprises Ltd., the network's global marketing arm.
Arnold-Baker's trip here last month, to join in celebrations of the BBC's 50th anniversary on television, was his third. That's a clear sign of the BBC's interest in the United States, because he had only been on the job for six weeks. He came to the BBC after nine years with the Fischer-Price toy company.
The BBC sold $50 million worth of television programs in other countries last year. BBC Enterprises Ltd., formed April 1 by combining the program and book sales divisions, hopes to double its revenues and profits within five years.
"The States, as the biggest market, have to be the leading edge of that," Arnold-Baker said.
He believes that the BBC may have an edge in these cost-conscious times. While the three big networks here frequently complain of the high cost of buying programs, the BBC produces its own.
When a show in this country is a hit, the stars, the producers, the directors and everyone else expects to share in the wealth as the network jacks up the cost of advertising on a popular show.
The BBC, however, has no commercials--and therefore no commercial jackpots to divvy up.
However, no network deals are imminent, and the BBC's major customers are apt to be the Public Broadcasting Service and the Arts & Entertainment Network for some time.
"Our big aim is to crack the commercial syndication market," said Arnold-Baker. "It has, always, such enormous potential. Its depth is unfathomable."
Earlier this year, BBC acquired Lionheart Television International Inc., based in Los Angeles, to be its exclusive U.S. distributor. Roy Gibbs is moving from London to New York to serve as Lionheart's senior vice president.
There are problems, though, in converting British to American TV.
A half-hour comedy on the BBC, for instance, runs 30 minutes, while a prime-time comedy in the United States runs 22 minutes. The rest of the time is for the sponsors.
In syndication, the shows may be cut further to permit more commercials. "To edit that amount of matter out, we don't just do it, or let someone else just do it," Gibbs said. "We involve the cooperation of producers and writers."
Sometimes, the BBC gets no cooperation.
" 'Fawlty Towers' cannot be touched. John Cleese won't allow it," Gibbs said. " 'Monty Python' cannot be cut."
The Python gang, in fact, went to court to make their point stick when Time-Life started chopping up "Monty Python."