The most powerful man in TV?

TELEVISION; In his first interview since being appointed director of television at the BBC, Michael Jackson talks to James Rampton
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The Independent Culture
Who is the most powerful person in broadcasting? Noel Edmonds, perhaps? How about Desmond Lynam, Esther Rantzen, or David Dimbleby? The answer in fact is someone whose face is rarely seen, but who has the power of televisual life and death over all of the above. You may never have heard of Michael Jackson, the holder since last month of the BBC's new post of director of television, but you have certainly watched a programme he's been responsible for.

Over three years in his previous job as controller of BBC2, he raised its viewing share from 10.3 to 11.7 per cent - no mean feat in the most competitive market this side of Billingsgate. As satellite and cable channels parked their expensive tanks on the BBC's neatly manicured lawn, even employees within the Corporation were predicting its share would fall. But Jackson managed to turn expectation on its head by commissioning such successful series as The House, Our Friends in the North, Fantasy Football, Shooting Stars and The Mrs Merton Show.

As part of his new job, he has been handed the seals of office for the controllership of BBC1, where the corporation's really big ratings-pullers reside. Forget Vic and Bob; now he has EastEnders and Noel's House Party to play with.

He has not got to this position by accident. What strikes you when you first meet Jackson is how in control he seems. Legend has it that he is so busy he reads out his diary at management-training sessions to demonstrate the demands of his job. Yet he remains a picture of poise, holding all calls and fixing you with his eyes to denote he's giving you his undivided attention. Slim, with bushy brown hair, he appears urbane and has a nice line in puncturing humour - but there's never any doubt about who's in charge. He could, you feel, be really scary if he didn't like what he was hearing.

He'll need every ounce of his authority as he faces up to what is now his principal challenge: to re-tune his aerial from the often highbrow BBC2 to the more mainstream BBC1. Stuart Cosgrove, once a colleague of Jackson's on The Late Show and now a competitor as controller of arts and entertainment at Channel 4, is in a good position to comment that "the biggest issue for Michael is, has he got the common touch? We know he's very tuned in to post-modernity and what the young, liberal intelligentsia wants. But is he as clued-up about Bruce Forsyth as he is about Bill Forsyth?"

Jackson asserts that he will be equal to the new challenge. "I very much didn't see BBC2 as `ghetto television'. My understanding was that it was for everybody, but not for everybody all of the time... The channel had a slightly Aquascutum feel to it; we wanted to bring in a bit of The Gap," he maintains. "The sense of trying to make things accessible and available while they're being good and purposeful is something I'm used to." His experience at BBC2 has also taught him that "people don't want to be - and this is very much a mark of the times in which we live - just BBC1 or BBC2 people. People want to eat in a Harvester, and they also want a bit of cordon bleu."

To those who know him, it came as no surprise to hear that Jackson had won such a glittering prize at the BBC. Although not from a classic media background - he was brought up a baker's son in Macclesfield - his ambitions have been clear from an early age. He read Media Studies at the Polytechnic of Central London, where he wrote a thesis on Lew Grade, gained a first and, in-between times, bought up rights to properties that he might at a later date want to make into programmes. After graduation he made his name campaigning for the rights of independent producers to have access to the airwaves.

This attracted the attention of Channel 4, which commissioned his Media Show in 1987. He didn't hang around before launching The Late Show on BBC2 the following year. After that, his progress up the BBC ladder was inexorable: head of music and arts in 1991, controller of BBC2 in April 1993...

Perhaps the most amazing - or galling, depending on your point of view - aspect of the story is that he has achieved so much by the age of just 38. In the often-conservative world of the BBC, this counts as precocity of Alexander the Great proportions. It is hard to disagree with insiders who whisper with more than a touch of reverence that he is "a phenomenon". Even John Willis, Channel 4's director of programmes and, until recently, Jackson's direct rival (last year Willis called him a "copycat criminal" for placing his Oprah shows directly opposite C4's), admits that Jackson "has done an extremely good job".

And Jackson lives and breathes the job. He is reported to have played the game of TV Scheduler as a child and stunned colleagues in one meeting by recalling the precise transmission time in the 1960s of the children's programme Skippy. He has been known to arrive in the office on a Monday morning with more than 50 cuttings from the weekend newspapers suggesting potential programme ideas.

Obviously no one gets so far, so young, without being targeted by the odd sniper. And though it is hard to find critics within the BBC, outsiders are prepared to comment. John Willis, for example, claims there is a danger that Jackson, who is unmarried and has no children, is too steeped in the medium. "I'm sure Michael sleeps on a wide-screen TV set. He's obsessed with television. That's fantastic in one way. But in another way, there's a world out there which I don't know how much he is part of. It's important that we know about our children going to school and what it's like travelling on the Tube... We don't want to be in a 625-line cocoon."

Waldemar Januszczak, who used to present The Late Show, has called Jackson "a control freak" - a criticism which might be echoed by the printers of the Radio Times, who are rumoured to be exasperated by his last-minute tinkering with the schedules. "I'm one of the very few people he can't control," Willis laughs, "but I do hear that said of him. Disillusioned producers say that he changes the titles or the music of a programme very late in the day. Then again, a lot of people in television are control freaks - it's part of the disease."

For every sceptic, however, you can find countless Jackson devotees. Take Laurence Rees, the editor of Timewatch, who for three years has worked hand in glove with Jackson. He rebuts accusations that Jackson is ruthless. "It's one of those irregular verbs, isn't it? `I am firm in my decision-making. He is ruthless.' Michael isn't ruthless. He's just on top of his job."

Whether he is ruthless or firm, devoted or obsessed, there is no doubting Jackson's commitment, nor his enthusiasm for the medium. Watching TV, he says, "I want to be taken on a journey to something I've never thought about before. That's one of the great things about broadcasting. I still find myself switching on the television and being introduced to something that I never knew I was interested in ... We live in a fractured society, and the moments when people are brought together to see things in common are quite rare. When TV manages to do that, that's quite a precious thing. At its best, television's not about television. It's about the world."

And as the new director of television speaks, his eyes light up, like a small boy who has just been given the keys to Hamley's. !