Silver Spring-based Acorn Media streams British TV classics

December 2, 2011

While American networks continue to adapt British TV series with varying degrees of success, Anglophiles who crave authentic U.K. television face a challenge in finding viewing options — especially those who want to watch shows when most people do, also known as “whenever they feel like it.”

Fortunately for them, back in the early ’90s, an employee at a small home-video distribution company thought that maybe, someday, people might want to find such a thing. Flash-forward a couple of decades and the Silver Spring-based Acorn Media Group has quietly grown into an international independent media company and leading distributor of British programming on DVD. And it’s picking up steam with its latest way to help fans of pop culture from across the pond: a streaming video Web site that offers seasons’ worth of classic British shows.

Known as Acorn TV, the subscription service launched in July and offers full seasons of 10 shows at a time, rotating content every week (The first episode of any show is free; full access to the site is $24.99/year). The latest show, the police drama “Above Suspicion” (starring “Sherlock Holmes” actress Kelly Reilly as a rookie detective trying to prove herself), premieres there Monday.

Acorn TV is similar to Netflix streaming but with more-plentiful pleasing accents and less rage from customers about confusing practices. Acorn executives carefully studied streaming sites such as Netflix, as well as Hulu and Amazon, and went with the most uncomplicated concept possible, narrowing the number of series offered to spotlight the popular programs that would appeal to audiences.

“We thought that it was important to have a high-quality, simply straightforward outlet — our consumers have a certain type of sensibility,” Miguel Penella, Acorn’s chief executive, said from his office overlooking downtown Silver Spring. “We wanted to create more of a broadcast-type service where you have access to a few new programs that are available at any given time.”

From drama and mystery (“Foyle’s War” and “Agatha Christie’s Poirot”) to dramedy (“Fortysomething,” featuring Hugh Laurie), Acorn TV’s library is filled with shows that cater to the British-TV-loving audience, especially that person in your life who records every “Masterpiece Mystery!” on PBS and tries to convince you that “Doc Martin” is better than “House.” For Acorn Media, getting the word out about lesser-known British series to new audiences is half the battle, since it helps out their DVD sales.

Acorn Media Group began in 1984 in the basement of founder Peter Edwards, who worked as a communications consultant and NBC News employee. Edwards, still the chairman, started the company (then called Atlas Video) as a way to market serious historical and travel documentaries on VHS tapes.

Things took a twist when the start-up expanded in the early ’90s and hired John Lorenz, a former business affairs director at PBS who had seen the popularity of British programming for the Washington-based public television station, especially the kind that was rarely distributed in North America. Executives licensed the period drama “Cadfael” in 1994, which also aired on PBS. Soon after acquiring more titles and seeing VHS — and, eventually, DVD — sales grow, the small company had cornered a niche market.

Having upgraded from a basement, the U.S. headquarters — adorned with posters of some of its most popular titles, from “Brideshead Revisited” to “Poirot” — now is home to more than 40 employees. That’s in addition to the offices in London and Sydney, plus one in Stillwater, Minn., which handles the catalogues still sent out to customers. (The company sells many other DVD titles in addition to U.K. shows).

Penella says Acorn Media Group fits in well with other media companies housed in the Washington area, such as Discovery Communications, National Geographic and, of course, PBS. “What you have is a certain type of television that appeals to a certain audience that is very much our audience,” Penella added. “Adult, well-educated, affluent audiences — from that point of view, it’s clearly a great city to be in.”

Acorn tries to set itself apart by appealing to a slightly older demographic, said Mark Stevens, the U.S. president of Acorn Media Group. In addition to targeting a group traditionally overlooked by broadcast networks and cable channels, the service focuses on acquiring high-end dramas and mysteries.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel completely with a brand-new slate of programming,” said Stevens, who, like Penella, also worked at direct-to-consumer music/movie distributor Time Life. “We have a lot of established franchises, and we want more people to sample them and enjoy them. That’s also a secret to how things work for us.”

In the meantime, Acorn continues to expand as it also distributes documentaries with its Athena DVD label and owns Acacia DVDs, a branch dedicated health and fitness.

Acorn executives are also carefully monitoring the progress of the new Acorn TV streaming service and trying to acquire the rights on other shows — even possibly dabbling in original programming. Last year, Penella said, Acorn acquired the rights to the detective wartime drama “Foyle’s War,” which means it can produce new seasons of the series, one of Acorn’s most popular.

Although U.S. networks are trying to capitalize on the power of British programming by adapting them for American audiences, Acorn’s executives aren’t worried about losing customers to those new shows. In fact, an adapted series — whether it does well or quickly flames out — means a spike in interest as people search out the original.

If the show does well, “it’s a longer amount of activity, but if it doesn’t do well, people do still want to discover it and what the original is like,” Stevens said. “We win either way, quite frankly.”

Emily Yahr is an entertainment reporter and pop culture blogger for the Style section. She joined the Post in May 2008, a week before she graduated from the University of Maryland, and worked on Lisa de Moraes' TV Column and blog.
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