New Yorkers have always been suckers for a British accent. So it’s not surprising that once they realized that they could watch the classy Mishal Husain on the BBC News instead of Fox’s rah-rah Shepard Smith, they’d make the more respectable choice. Like Tony Blair, the BBC has won over the hearts and minds of a certain liberal info-demographic.
“Watching the war on the American channels is like watching football on ESPN,” says Rosalind Lichter, an entertainment lawyer who went Brit and hasn’t come back. “I’d never watched the BBC before this,” says Charlie Olsky, a Brooklyn filmmaker. “I think a lot of people got frustrated with CNN trying to compete with Fox.” He and his friends have gotten their war news exclusively from the Beeb. “Now we have brand loyalty,” he notes dryly.
Dissenter Andrew Sullivan calls the BBC the “Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation.”
“I watch the U.S. networks to analyze micro-spin gradations, not to actually find out what is going on,” says Michael Hirschorn, a senior vice-president at VH1. With the BBC, he adds, “the assumption is that you can hold two opposing thoughts at the same time: understand the logic of the war while also being aware of its devastating costs.”
“The BBC actually tries to uphold the idea of ‘We report, you decide,’ ” says Frank Rich, cultural commissar of the Times. And the U.N. headquarters got wired for the BBC on March 17, so its staff wouldn’t be stuck with just CNN.
Not that everyone’s so enamored: Brit expat Andrew Sullivan calls the BBC the “Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation” and joked on his site last week, “What’s the difference between the BBC’s commentary and Mohammed Said Sahaf’s? Three days.”
Still, viewership is up a third in the city, and the BBC isn’t afraid to gloat about it. “We’re getting a huge amount of positive feedback from New York,” says senior press officer Ciara O’Sullivan in London. She says the word that comes up most often is sophisticated, and she sounds quite sophisticated saying it. Rather like Tina Brown, whose own CNBC show, Topic A—tag line: “Reports of intelligence on television now confirmed”—was postponed by the war until later this month. For her, the BBC succeeds because “it has a mid-Atlantic stance, and being mid-Atlantic is very cool.”