The only way is up

It's been a traumatic time for the BBC. But Jana Bennett thinks the corporation's turned a corner. The director of television and self-styled 'Amazon warrior' tells Ian Burrell her grounds for optimism
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The Independent Online

When the rest of the television industry poured out of Edinburgh last weekend and headed back, bleary-eyed, towards London, Jana Bennett marched off in the opposite direction. An avid mountaineer, the most powerful woman in British television went off to the Highlands to abseil down Ben Nevis.

When the rest of the television industry poured out of Edinburgh last weekend and headed back, bleary-eyed, towards London, Jana Bennett marched off in the opposite direction. An avid mountaineer, the most powerful woman in British television went off to the Highlands to abseil down Ben Nevis.

Such an instinct for exploration is to be expected from a woman who once edited Horizon and later oversaw such colossal productions as Walking with Dinosaurs, Meet the Ancestors and The Human Body.

But not so many months ago, the sight of Bennett heading for the hills could have been interpreted as an attempt to get away from it all. For BBC television has produced a year of high drama, celebrity humiliation, recrimination, racism and financial scandal. Aside from the programming.

Jana Bennett, 47, the self-proclaimed "Amazon warrior of public-service broadcasting", started the year as one of "Greg's Angels", brought back to the BBC from the United States by Greg Dyke, the then director-general. By the end of January, she had watched Dyke leave, after Panorama (which she previously worked for and now oversaw) contributed to his downfall by criticising his handling of the Andrew Gilligan affair. As the BBC went into turmoil, Bennett herself led a delegation of senior executives in April as they pleaded with the acting director-general, Mark Byford, to call off an internal disciplinary inquiry, which they said was "tearing staff apart".

Then, having personally axed one of BBC1's best-known presenters, Robert Kilroy-Silk, for anti-Arab comments made in a newspaper, Bennett looked on as her flagship channel was slaughtered in the media in July, after news emerged in the corporation's annual report that it was to undergo a review.

The arrival of the new director-general, Mark Thompson, has brought some relief, but also the threat of efficiency cuts that have alarmed those who make Bennett's programmes. These savings are "not about penny-pinching", claims the director of television, loyally. "We should always look at whether there are ways we can make ourselves leaner, faster, more responsive and in touch. We've had much more sense of open buildings and changing our work spaces. All that is just about being a modern BBC," she says. "I'm convinced we should look at this and we should build a war chest. This is not about penny-pinching on the programme budgets, it's about ways of doing things more efficiently."

Savings must be made, she says, because audiences are becoming "more demanding" in their expectations of programmes. "Audiences' aspirations are to keep breaking new ground on air, and if you look at the quality of production it's higher. Even John Humphrys accepted this in his MacTaggart speech, the best programmes are trying brilliant things on air. One of the reasons why Britain has such good broadcast media is that per head we invest more than any other country."

Bennett was born in New Hampshire and has retained a strong American accent even though she left for Sussex at the age of 12. Earlier this year she told the BBC's journal Ariel: "I was a product of Sixties America, witnessing the riots in the streets, the exodus to Woodstock and being too young to go. I grew my hair like Janis Joplin, loved Jimi Hendrix, and I still possess my embroidered hipster jeans from those hazy, heady days." It must have been a culture shock to have had to complete her schooling in Bognor Regis.

Bennett's academic record is impeccable, with a politics, philosophy and economics degree at Oxford followed by a masters at the London School of Economics in strategic analysis and international and defence studies. With such skills at her disposal, the bespectacled mountaineer has carefully climbed the BBC career path, and was widely touted to reach the summit of director-generalship, only to rule herself out of contention.

Right now, Bennett is not complaining. Rather, she is rejoicing in the announcement that BBC TV has won not only the terrestrial channel of the year (BBC2) but the digital channel as well (BBC4). Both these channels, she says, have been recognised for combining a good "programming mix" with a talent for "doing new things in interesting ways".

Bennett must take not a little credit for both of these awards. She worked closely with her friend Jane Root, the former BBC2 controller, to keep the channel on course when it was at risk of disenchanting its core viewers with a schedule that was overly reliant on lifestyle programmes. She has also championed the BBC4 controller Roly Keating through the digital channel's first two years before moving him across as Root's successor. "He has a deep understanding of the relationship between the two channels," she says.

Under Keating's management, she would like to see BBC2 move to embrace programmes that have "a definitive narrative". "The idea that you can have an epic, distinguished point of view or tour de force across a subject and you feel you have not been given titbits of information; where you have been taken on a journey, whether a physical or an intellectual one."

The industry recognition of BBC4's content is a rebuke to those who have doubted the value of the corporation's adventure into multi-channel television and a vindication of Bennett's management of this wider portfolio.

She continually has her eye on the future, and believes television viewing is undergoing a transformation brought on by the coverage of the Olympic games in Athens. BBC figures show that during the Olympics 8.96 million people used their interactive red buttons to access pictures of events taking place that were not being screened on the main channel. Bennett and other senior BBC executives were shocked by the figure, which compared to the four million who accessed a similar service at the Wimbledon tennis championships and the 3.5 million who used the red button during coverage of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002.

Bennett says the Olympics coverage has represented "a real step change" in television viewing. "In my own household, my daughter wanted to go for synchronised swimming, my son wanted to go for baseball and I wanted to watch athletics. By having more than one TV set we could split off and it was all available," she says. "We feel there's a real change in terms of how people are using interactive television. More than 50 per cent of people with red buttons are consuming coverage interactively. It has become part of the expectation that there will be actual programme streams with additional content." BBC3, she says, is ripe ground for experimentation with interactive content, thanks to the many "early adopters" of new technology among its 25- to 34-year-old core audience.

Fine, but where does this leave BBC1, whose audience includes a hardcore of "never adopters"? Bennett is, predictably, fiercely defensive of BBC1's record in the face of claims that it struggles to have an identity in a changing television world. "Out of all our services it's the channel that most people gather round. It has this powerful ability to unite people," she says. "It's in very good health and has sustained itself extremely well under intense pressure."

The publication of Dyke's memoirs has brought back memories of Hutton, and Bennett can still remember the look of shock on the former D-G's face as he realised his offer of resignation had been accepted. But it is clear she feels it is time to move on.

"We don't want to stand still," she says, adding that "Greg's time was highly stimulating and confidence-building and everybody is now more collaborative and more modern in their outlook".

Bennett has a new boss but she is still firmly on-message. "Mark has hit the ground running, as has Michael Grade, and we are actually really lucky, despite the traumas of last year, to keep the momentum and, in fact, speed it up. The world is going to change pretty fast too and we want to be in the front of the media revolution."