Ms Root's transatlantic voyage of Discovery

She may have one of the toughest jobs in US broadcasting, but the former BBC2 controller is in tune with her audience, she tells Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

You might have thought that a woman who once worked as a university lecturer in film studies would know better than to move to America and buy a house on Elm Street. But Jane Root, the multi-award-winning former controller of BBC 2, appears not to be suffering from any nightmares, after crossing the Atlantic to take charge of the Discovery channel in the States. And her purchase of a property in the Washington neighbourhood that gave its name to the American comedian Chevy Chase suggests that she may be staying Stateside for some time.

Ms Root, 47, who is married to the human-rights lawyer Ray Hill, is expecting her first baby in February, but is confident that motherhood will not stand in the way of her career at a company where a woman, Judith McHale, is the chief executive officer. And she isn't tempted to come home to have her child. "My husband and I keep saying, 'We're having an American'," she says. "And no, we're not coming back to the UK to bring up the baby - it's not going to make any difference."

Even so, few people in British television think that she's gone for good. Before he left the BBC, the former director general Greg Dyke told Root to "go and have an adventure and, maybe, come back". She indicates that she is doing just that. "This is an adventure," she says. "But I don't want to speculate on my future, I'm too new in this job."

That job is one of the most coveted in American television, broadcasting to a potential audience of 88 million on a channel that, unlike its counterpart in Britain, is universally recognised. "I've not yet met a person over here who does not know what the Discovery channel is. It occupies a very special place in American broadcasting," she says.

Overseeing shows about bikes and cars such as American Hotrod and American Chopper may not have been quite what a young Root envisaged when she left Sussex University to set up the film-distribution company Cinema of Women. But she would argue that Discovery, with its catchline of "Entertain your brain", offers a challenging and informative mix of programmes. And, after all, she did work with Jeremy Clarkson when turning BBC 2 into the back-to-back winner of the British channel of the year award at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. "I'm having a fantastic time. You can't underestimate how energising it is just to do something different," she says of her new surroundings. "Suddenly, lots of different things are possible, suddenly you can examine your own prejudices that you have got stuck into, and think again."

One popular British prejudice is that Americans are not interested in anything that happens abroad, which is a potential problem for a channel that has, for 20 years, been geared to a global outlook. Root says: "Our audience is genuinely interested in the world outside. And you don't find that in much of the rest of the US media. It's something we can make more of."

These are interesting times to be working in the media in the States. "In America right now, there's a huge sense that, politically, there's a big crossroads coming up. There are lots of different directions - whereas in the past five years in Britain, there hasn't been much lively political debate."

The former BBC 2 controller has also been invigorated by the American office culture, which is somewhat different from that in London's hard-bitten media village. "I've been impressed by the vigour and energy. The can-do lack of cynicism is wonderful. I'm a bit like that myself, so I embrace it. There's a streak of the American in me."

Root lived in America for a year as a student, doing a scholarship at Clark University, outside Boston, in between studying international relations at Sussex University. Since arriving in the States this time round, she has flown between New York, Texas and LA, explaining that "America's a big country", and acknowledging that she will need to visit the smaller towns of the Midwest. Curiously, her journey to America mirrors a similar sojourn by her close friend Jana Bennett, who returned and became the BBC's director of television.

Root's approach to the job at Discovery (where her title is president and general manager) will be the same as the one she applied to BBC 2, namely, to nail down the "essential DNA" of the channel and then bring in some landmark shows.

Survival, she believes, is a potentially fruitful area. "In England, the countryside is beautiful but inhabited - if you see a rabbit, it's exciting. But America is a country in which huge chunks are still a complete wilderness," she says. "That's a big part of the American psyche, and there's no programme that really explores that aspect. That's what we're looking for."

The key to making a good channel is to "lock into a country's passion or fears", she says. "For example, there is a big new aspiration in Britain about living in Europe, which has only happened in the past 10 years," she says. She also thinks that Discovery audiences will embrace trivia shows. "I know from my BBC 2 audience that people have less time, but they are no less interested in the world. That's a big playground if you are a channel controller or a programme producer."

Root's legacy at BBC 2 is an admirable one, but she is already calling on her successor to tear up her good work and start again. Roly Keating, she says, will have to "reinvent for a new era", namely, that of multi-channel television. "Roly should follow his heart and his brain, and go where it takes him. I'm proud of the things we did in the past five years, but only he and time can say whether they are right for the next five years," she says. "A channel is a work-in-progress. The moment that you think you've got it finished, you should retire. It would be arrogant and wrong to think that it's ever possible to get it all right. If you stop going through that process of changing and energising, you're dead."

Of more recent BBC 2 successes, she was most proud of Restoration, Dunkirk, and a ground-breaking documentary on the scientist Stephen Hawking. "They all felt like they were really big things, they were all ambitious in their own way," she says. Restoration she particularly liked because it combined the stylistic features of game shows - such as audience voting - with "a really important campaign". Dunkirk, on the other hand, was a "tough, tough production to make" because it required the bringing together of both factual programme-makers and actors.

These programmes were "television beyond television", Root says, because they made an impact on the real world. Condemned buildings actually got restored as a result of Restoration, and, in the case of another BBC 2 show, The Big Read, in which viewers were asked to vote for their favourite novels, book sales soared.

She acknowledges now that she did take some time to find the pulse of BBC 2, after taking charge of the channel in 1999. "After nine months in the job, I came to the conclusion that we were trying too hard to be Channel 4, which still had a bit of a halo from being the new kid on the block. That wasn't getting us anywhere," she says.

"I started to love a lot of bits of BBC 2. Why not be proud of the gardening programmes and the Chelsea Flower Show - a unique British event that a huge number of people really care about? Why not be proud of classic British period drama? It's all too easy to try to just copy someone else."

However, having finally discovered the secret formula for a successful channel, and having defied the advance of multi-channel television to retain the BBC 2 audience, Root decided to leave. Why?

"Five years is a long time," she explains. "I got to the point where I was actually cancelling things that I had helped to create. You have to murder your own children. When you get to that stage, it's time to move on."

Sooner or later, the cycle will run its course at Discovery, and Jane Root will no doubt want to reinvent herself again. The BBC would certainly have her back.

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