'Super-temp' makes her mark on the BBC

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The Independent Online

Sophie Turner Laing now has one of the most powerful jobs in British television – for the next few months only.

She is the woman who has stepped into the breach to become acting director of television at the BBC following the departure of Mark Thompson, who is to become chief executive of Channel 4. "I'm the super-temp," she laughs.

Turner Laing has form in the role. After the departure of Matthew Bannister last year, she became the BBC's acting director of marketing and communications for five months. The year before, she was acting head of business affairs for seven months.

She says the BBC's decision to make her the acting director of television now is because she does not want the job permanently. Turner Laing, 41, has no intention of leaving her own post as controller of programme acquisitions, where she selects and negotiates buying feature films and drama and entertainment.

"It's always much more sensible to have someone taking the acting role who doesn't want it ultimately, because then whoever it is doesn't get disappointed [if they don't get it]," she says. "I have the best job in television so I'm very reluctant to give it up. But this is my third temp job– and it's by far the biggest and most challenging."

In her view, the art of being an acting head is to drive things forward but make no long-term strategic decisions. "Whoever comes in will do that, but you do need an acting head who is going to drive the vision. I absolutely take on all the responsibilities – though I have a fantastic team, so it's not just me. It's a fantastic opportunity for us to pull together. The BBC is running on a great high at the moment and we want to maintain that."

As the acting director of television, she sees much of her role as mediating between different parts of the BBC and different genres to ensure the success of the BBC overall.

But there are also decisions that have to be taken. One of the first was appointing Jane Lush from head of day-time to be the commissioner for entertainment, a crucial position that had been vacant for some time. And on the back of that will be the need to find a replacement to run day-time. "Day-time used to be seen as an also-ran area, but now we can see how vitally important it can be for providing a solid base for the schedule. Day-time's suddenly got sexy," she says.

She is likely to be still in charge when BBC 4, the new digital channel replacing BBC Knowledge, goes on air in the spring. She may also have to contend with queries from the Department of Culture about the revised application for a proposed BBC 3, which will replaceBBC Choice. "There will be enough to do to keep me busy," she says.

Turner Laing's background is in the international marketplace, having initially worked for Jim Henson, the Muppets company, selling programmes to North America and working on international co-productions. She went on to co-found HIT Entertainment, creator of Bob the Builder, before becoming vice-president of broadcasting for Flextech, the pay-TV company. She joined the BBC as controller of programme acquisitions three-and-a-half years ago. Among her signings was Band of Brothers, the Steven Spielberg war epic that went out last autumn.

She is keen not to be an acting director of television for more time than is strictly necessary. "I've already sent in my list of recommendations," she says. "Greg would expect to hear from his senior team, and it's in my interest to have a speedy handover. Hopefully, if it's an internal appointment, it won't be very long." Ask her who she is backing, though, and her lips are sealed. You don't get to be that senior, even on an acting basis, by being stupid.

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