I went to Girton College, Cambridge, between 1981 and 1984, and was a geographer, which gave me plenty of time to do other things. I applied to the BBC for its production training scheme, but I failed, and so I wrote around to ITV companies.
Central Television picked me up for interview, and I was offered a job on its management trainee scheme with two others. After I'd done two years, my mentor, Andy Allen - then director of programmes - put me in as a researcher on regional programmes such as Central Weekend, and later as associate producer in entertainment.
Then Andy said we weren't selling enough programmes to Channel 4, and asked me to write a paper identifying where we were going wrong. When I'd done that, Andy then said: "Okay, you can now solve the problem," and I got the awful title of Channel 4 Liaison Officer - which meant that I co-ordinated our pitches to Channel 4. After a year doing that, Andy asked me if I fancied being controller of planning - putting schedules together. He offered to double my salary, but I resisted it until he promised me a company car - though the first day I had the car, somebody nicked it.
It was quite tumultuous being a planner - you sat on a scheduling committee and had to fight to get the best slots for your programming. And most other controllers were men in their mid-40s, who felt rather undermined that Central had had the audacity to put a 26-year-old unknown woman in as a controller. It was a baptism of fire, but I was very successful, and I went on to be director of planning - which meant that I was also responsible for Central's on-screen promotion and presentation, the press office and research.
Then, in 1993, ITV set up Network Centre in London, and I went there to be in charge of commissioning kids' and daytime programming under Marcus Plantin. And there was outrage: it was perceived that I didn't have enough production experience, and again, that I was too young. But I was very successful, and got the BBC, which had been very sniffy about my appointment, on the hop; we were really trouncing them.
But then John Willis, director of programmes at Channel 4, asked to see me, and at the time I couldn't understand why - Channel 4 didn't have any kids' programmes at the time. But then, on the way to breakfast with him at the Savoy, the penny dropped: Andrea Wonfor, controller of arts and entertainment at Channel 4, was moving on to Granada. That led to a meeting with Michael Grade, and I was offered her job - to more outrage in the industry.
Eighteen months into the job, I'd got a phone call from Greg Dyke, who said he was putting together a Channel 5 bid and would like me to be director of programmes. First I told him I was quite happy at Channel 4, but after some thought I felt I really wasn't exploiting my strengths there. Actually, I'm a deeply commercial and competitive animal, and I'd always wanted the chance to run my own channel. Of course, Greg's was only one of a number of bids, but I decided to go with his Channel 5 broadcasting consortium, and it won.
Michael Grade was not happy, but I want to be part of the history of broadcasting, and I hope setting up the last terrestrial channel will give me a place there. Everyone told me that it might fail, and that I'd probably be out in two years' time, but I don't approach things like that - it never crosses my mind that Channel 5 will be anything but successful.
I've been here 20 months now, and I want to build on what I think has been a pretty terrific start, when you consider I've got 10 per cent of the BBC and ITV's budget on original programming and that the viewers expect it to be up there with the other four. I'm working 15-hour days, and we've got a lot of hard work to do, but that's the joy of telly: you tweak and you change until you get the engine perfectly rightn
Interview by Scott HughesReuse content