Smithsonian Channel to Launch in U.K.

Courtesy of Smithsonian Networks
Smithsonian Networks chief programming officer David Royle

With 19 million homes, the U.K. move is the single-biggest launch ever for the joint venture of CBS Corp.'s Showtime Networks and the Smithsonian Institution.

CBS Corp.'s Smithsonian Channel, a joint venture between Showtime Networks and the Smithsonian Institution, is launching its first European service in the U.K. on Tuesday, continuing its push into international markets.

The network previously launched in Canada, Singapore and Latin America. Now British and Irish viewers will have access on Comcast's Sky, cable giant Virgin Media and free-to-air satellite TV service Freesat. The channel will also become available on digital terrestrial platform Freeview by the end of February.

The Smithsonian Channel, whose original content covers a range of non-fiction topics, including history, travel, air and space, science, nature and pop culture, has previously licensed its programming to such U.K. TV giants as the BBC, but is now looking to make a splash with its own network, which will include original local programming. 

The U.K. move is the channel's single-biggest launch with 19 million homes. In 2007, the U.S. launch happened in 150,000 homes, which has grown to nearly 40 million. "So we are used to people telling us there is no room for you, and we love proving them wrong," David Royle, chief programming officer, Smithsonian Networks, tells The Hollywood Reporter

And he highlights the channel's long-running experience and relationships in Britain. "We have a long track-record of working with U.K. production companies, and over the years our programs have been featured by leading U.K. broadcasters,” says Royle. "Now we’ll be bringing a lot of exciting new programs to the U.K., along with commissioning new programs specific to British interests."

"Smithsonian Channel has already resonated powerfully with audiences in Canada, Singapore and Latin America, so we can’t wait to bring our award-winning and varied slate of programming to the U.K. audience,” said Tom Hayden, president of Smithsonian Networks.

Royle points out that for the Smithsonian Institution, the U.K. launch is a return to its roots as it was founded when Englishman James Smithson donated his fortune to America for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge."

The Smithsonian Channel’s first U.K. commissions include When Tariq Ali Met Malcolm X, about the friendship between British Marxist and anti-Vietnam war protestor Tariq Ali and the U.S. black power advocate, and Mystic Britain, about the secrets of Britain’s most mysterious sites.

Royle tells THR that the channel is looking to attract the "sophisticated audience" in the U.K.: "There are far fewer good non-fiction channels in the U.K. and tons of entertainment channels."

Among the popular U.S. series that the U.K. channel will air is America in Color, which looks at the history of America over the past century in colorized form. "It takes the distance of black-and-white and brings it back to life," Royle says. "I think that may resonate in the U.K."

The age of fake news and the like provides opportunities for factual networks, the executive argues. "We live in this time of false facts. It’s a global phenomenon," Royle tells THR. "Audiences want to go, at times, somewhere where they can trust programming. You can’t trust what you are seeing. But we are not a reality TV channel at all. Audiences are responding to that."

Asked about other channels competing for audiences interested in high-quality non-fiction content, Royle mentions BBC Four. "We don’t see them as rivals, but complementary," he says. 

What happens to Smithsonian programs previously licensed to other U.K. networks? Royle says some programming had short licenses, while other material will "play elsewhere instead of our channel for a while." Importantly, "we are not going to stop co-producing with U.K. broadcasters," he tells THR. "We have strong relationships with all of them. There will be plenty of programs we will do with them primarily for the North American market.”

The bottom line: "We will be doing more work in the U.K., not less," says Royle. "We will be stepping up our production work in the U.K."

What is unique about Smithsonian Channel programming? Royle says it's all about telling appealing stories. "Good non-fiction programming needs to have dramatic storytelling," he tells THR. "It needs to be entertaining.”