'We'd taken our eye off the ball'

Jana Bennett, the BBC's director of TV, has nothing against her predecessor, Mark Thompson. It's just that he got it all wrong, she tells Vincent Graff
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It's not for nothing that the BBC's in-house newspaper, Ariel, was for years fondly known as "Pravda", such was its unquestioning line on the corporation that pays its bills. (Even now, it still carries breathlessly upbeat headlines on some of its pages - "We'll use money well, says Davies"; "Listen up kids, on BBCi".) But as the life-sapping effects of John Birt's regime gradually dissipate, the paper has been finding itself an independent voice of sorts. This does not go down entirely well with Jana Bennett, who has just completed her first year as the BBC's director of television.

The day we meet, Ariel is reporting that she has "turned on" Mark Thompson, her predecessor. It is the one moment during our meeting that Bennett, who is in effect the director general Greg Dyke's number two, allows any sign of irritation to show. "I have not hit out at him in any personal way whatsoever," she sighs. "Ariel is quite independent these days." You get the idea that a bit of her - the bit that sees the bashing the BBC gets at the hands of the Daily Mail and some of the Murdoch press - is not altogether sure that this editorial independence is always good idea.

Yet if Bennett's battle with Thompson, now the chief executive at Channel 4, is not personal, it is certainly ideological. It was during his time in the BBC job that the corporation made its big push into digital television. Thompson's vision three years ago was that each of the BBC channels should rapidly move into specialisms. Mixed channels were history. BBC1 would become a drama/entertainment channel, BBC2 would be factual. In Thompson's vision, the most upmarket stuff - documentaries, arts and culture - should shifted as quickly as possible on to BBC Knowledge (since renamed BBC4). Young people's programming could be sent to BBC Choice (now BBC3). As a halfway house, non-core BBC1 shows such as Panorama could be parked in a remote corner of the schedule where no one would see them - and then be booted off the channel when their audience figures, predictably, slumped.

Bennett, to her credit, thinks differently. She said recently: "It was too simplistic to say BBC1 can have drama and entertainment as its focus, BBC2 factual, BBC3 youth entertainment and BBC4 arts and culture." At present, half of households in the country have access only to the main BBC1 and BBC2 channels. They are paying for the programmes that are broadcast on BBC3 and BBC4, which they cannot see. Fairness aside, these licence-payers have votes - and the BBC's charter comes up for renewal in 2006.

Picking her words carefully, Bennett says now: "If you don't have 100 per cent distribution of digital, the idea of narrowing the range of genres on BBC1 and BBC2 is a mistake." Under Thompson, BBC1 had "taken its eye off the ball in the arts," she adds. "BBC1 should not be so narrow. It should have arts, current affairs, politics, big factual series. Equally, BBC2 shouldn't be a purely factual channel, and it was heading that way. To narrow the channels' roles in this transitional time would be wrong. That is why we have changed the strategy."

So, in headline terms, BBC1 is saying goodbye to many of its peak-time "make-over" shows and docusoaps, and bringing in, for example, Imagine, an arts series fronted by Alan Yentob.

Bennett has not always thought this way. A former colleague recalls having lunch with her a few years ago. She was about to go to the United States to run the Discovery channels. She was bubbling with the buzzwords of the time - "clusters" of "specialised" "niche" channels - and the death of general one-stop-shop networks. Much the same sort of language that impressed Thompson, in fact.

She grins when reminded of her former self. "I don't know when I said that, but it sounds quite plausible. It wasn't just me. A lot of people saw digital as having a faster pace of take-up and more radical effects on people's types of choices than has actually proved to be the case. I changed my view while I was in the States because the more exciting things that were happening there were on channels that weren't confined to a genre.

"If you look at MTV in the States, they have broken out of being bound by music videos. The real action is over their formats and factual entertainment. I thought The Osbournes was a great story of our times. Just describing a subject matter area as a channel is not audience-focused. I think you want to be about your audience rather than to be defined by subject."

Bennett knows more than most about the American broadcasting scene. Her accent still owes more to her birthplace, Cooperstown, New York, than to the location of her education (Bognor Regis Comprehensive, Oxford University and the London School of Economics). But, in spite of her heritage and her experience working America, she looks pained at the possibility of an American-owned ITV, which is a distinct possibility if the proposed Broadcasting Act goes ahead in its current form.

She, like many others, wonders why the UK is about to allow US ownership here without a reciprocal deal on the other side of the Atlantic. "Perhaps there are logical reasons why you may not get reciprocity, but then you have got to ask yourself, 'Why is that the case?' I think reciprocity would have been better than a one-way street, because [US ownership] is a hard thing to reverse if you don't like the consequences. Probably impossible."

For all the talk of inward investment and new ideas, she fears that a big American broadcaster would merely view ITV as a local branch office, in business to pump out shows from its big American box-office names. "The risk is that they are going to be trying to establish their brands from elsewhere, and every hour of US output that is in our schedule on British channels is an hour less of UK original output. There will be an elbowing out of opportunities for British creativity."

And that, in Bennett's ultra-cautious vocabulary, would be "regrettable". ITV's news, too, could come under further pressure by the new Act, she says. The result? "I think the answer to some of this is going to be heavier content regulation." In place of Ofcom's promised "light touch, we will be trying to manage creativity through regulation."

While conceding one or two theoretical advantages that the Government's legislation might bring - "I am not a xenophobe; it could bring more capital, possibly more investment," - it becomes increasingly clear while Bennett is talking that, in spite of her measured language, she is not an enthusiast of the Broadcasting Act. She hasn't "met anybody" who says they are thrilled by the prospect of it, she says. So should we be bothering with the legislation at all? She considers for a moment, then says: "I think that is a reasonable question." One perhaps for the new, fearless Ariel?