May 18, 2024

In the midst of a great debate about the future of the U.S. news business, the British are coming.

Katty Kay, the veteran BBC newscaster, is set to launch a new deep-dive interview program that will take her away — not permanently — from her usual role covering U.S. politics in favor of long-form conversations with interesting figures. In the first nine-episode season of “Influential with Katty Kay,” the journalist will interview actor Wendell Pierce, dancer Misty Copeland and author Ken Follett, among others, all in a longform format that will put emphasis not only on what makes them famous but also some of their interests.

“You interview people in one way in news or politics. You are trying to catch them maybe saying something they don’t necesssarirly want to say or in an unguarded way. There’s a combative nature, which can be exhilarating, but it’s definitely combative,” Kay says in an interview. “This is not combative. I’m not trying to trip anybody up, but I am hoping they’ll be honest with me and candid and personal. I’m not very interested in whatever their talking points are about their latest book or whatever it is they are trying to pitch.”

Kay’s new program is slated to debut on November 16. “Influential” will air weekly across the BBC News channel, and YouTube. An audio version will be available on all major podcast platforms and on BBC iPlayer in the UK. Extended versions of the episodes will be available in North America on BBC Select in the new year.  

The BBC is viewed as a public utility in its home country, but many of its efforts abroad are commercial in nature. And Kay’s new show is one of several bids to bring viewers in North America, particularly those in the U.S. and Canada, under the broadcaster’s tent. The company is developing projects tied to the 2024 U.S. election, climate, travel, culture and history, says Jen Brown, senior vice president of programming and content strategy at BBC Studios.

“The BBC is providing something we are hearing from audiences that they want and aren’t getting from local media organizations,” she says. “We really do think there’s a white space in this market to bring this global perspective and impartial view, catering to people who want to wake up with the world versus just waking up with America.”

Over the last several years, the U.S. TV news business has thrived by emulating partisan “hot talk” programs from national radio, but that model would appear to have some limits. The share Americans who say they have been following the news closely has declined between 2016 and 2022, according to an analysis from Pew Research Center, which found that that the portion of U.S. adults who say they do so fell to 38% in 2022 from 51% in 2016. While 5% said in 2016 that they hardly ever follow the news, 9% said the same last year.

Madison Avenue has also started to grow wary of some news programming, particularly the kind that relies on a single host who relies more heavily on opinion than on moderating facts. For news shows to get the big ratings their parent companies need for success, the belief is they need to be confrontational. But that only heightens some advertisers’ uneasiness with the genre, particularly in an era when more consumers are polarized by the big issues facing the nation.

Several big news programmers have tested new formats. CNN’s Sunday program, “The Whole Story,” offers a documentary-style deep dive into a single topic, such as the plight of migrants crossing South America or solutions for climate change. MSNBC has extended the role of anchor Jen Psaki, the former White House press secretary, who favors long interviews over red-versus-blue debates (though the host still has partisan leanings). Fox News has also been spreading beyond its usual red-meat topics. In recent days, it pre-empted some of its primetime opinion programs with news shows focused on a speech by President Joe Biden about the Israel-Hamas conflict, or coverage of the same. Earlier this year, the network used a meeting with media buyers and advertisers to put a spotlight on an expanding array of lifestyle content.

“People are prepared to listen, and I find that particularly with younger audiences,” says Kay, who cites consumers’ growing interest in podcasts.

Kay, who has grown accustomed to holding intense interviews that last just minutes, says she is excited by the opportunity to spend a few hours with a subject. In most cases, she meets her interview subject at an interesting venue or enlists them in an activity. She interviewed actor Boneville at the U.K.’s Globe Theater, for example, and asked Copeland, the dancer, to show off some steps while in Louboutin heels.

The opportunity, Kay says, is to work “side by side” with her interview subjects rather than challenge them “face to face.” “I’m loving the challenge of building a relationship with people to get them over that sense of self-editing and self-censorship.” Where appropriate, the BBC will make available longer versions of the interviews, says Brown, or segments that might be cut to fit the linear format.

A second season has not been approved, but Kay already has her sights on future guests. She is interested in people such as designer Vera Wang, actor Julie Andrews and musician Ringo Starr.

She will keep on covering politics and turning up on venues such as MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” But Kay says “Influential” helps her work new muscles and fill other interests. “Politics are fascinating, particularly in this country. I feel I’ve had a front-row seat at one of the most extraordinary stories on earth over the last 20 years here, but I also want a bit of warmth and something a bit cheerful,” she says. “I think audiences want more too. We do want a bit of ice cream with our spinach.”

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