BBC TV Chief on Scandal, the Royal Baby and the Importance of 'Doctor Who' (Q&A)

Danny Cohen Executive Suite - H 2013
Charlie Gray

Danny Cohen Executive Suite - H 2013

Danny Cohen talks to THR about how his team is looking ahead after recent scandals, his interest in working with Hollywood creatives, when to cut in to programming to cover Prince George and the 10 million U.K. viewers of "Who."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When he was promoted in April, after running the BBC Three and then BBC One networks, Danny Cohen -- once described by The Times as "the boy wonder of British television" -- took over responsibility for the overall output of BBC Television, excluding news. And in his current post, the 39-year-old has got a lot to keep an eye on: the British public broadcaster's four main TV channels -- which reach 83.5 percent of the U.K. population -- led by flagship BBC One, plus BBC Films and BBC Productions, Europe's biggest TV producer. And Cohen always is mindful of the fact that the BBC is funded by U.K. taxpayers, who each pay around £145 ($232) a year for the public broadcaster -- which amounted to $5.9 billion in the last fiscal year, of which Cohen's portfolio gets a budget of about $1.6 billion.

Married to economist and author Noreena Hertz, Cohen, an Oxford graduate, spoke with THR about his interest in bringing in more Hollywood creatives and partners, the importance of Doctor Who, his focus on unleashing creativity and the decision to drop everything to cover the royal baby's birth.

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What's your biggest challenge or biggest issue you feel needs to be addressed or changed at BBC TV?

The BBC has a reputation for world-class programming, and it's my job to make sure that we maintain that reputation and actually grow it. As the world becomes all globalized, as people's experiences of the entertainment industry become more globalized, that the BBC becomes an ever stronger name in that context of quality, integrity and editorial strength. It's about growing those values for people who pay for us - the U.K. license fee payers, but also for audiences around the world.
You have announced some changes that you have described as focusing on creativity. They also seem designed to make BBC TV more entrepreneurial. What exactly are you trying to do?

Ultimately, it comes down to storytelling. All great television has great storytelling at its heart - that's true for drama and comedy, documentaries, scripted and unscripted programming. It's something I feel very passionate about. So, storytelling is a key value I'm talking about a lot. How do we make sure we have the best storytellers in the world.
The changes we're making are about liberating creativity. Up until now in the BBC, to gain status and seniority, you had to become a manager. I want to break that and give more status and seniority to our most creative people and give them the kind of opportunities they deserve. The generation of ideas is right at the heart of all of our businesses in media, and we need to get better at growing our IP.

How important is Doctor Who -- celebrating its 50th anniversary with a Nov. 23 special on BBC America -- to the BBC today?

Out of a population of just over 60 million in the U.K., over 10 million people watch Doctor Who. These big drama and entertainment brands -- Sherlock, Doctor Who -- are hugely important for the BBC, so getting Doctor Who right is very important, not just for the people who pay for us in the U.K. but for the BBC's global impact and reputation.

The past year has been tough on the BBC with the scandal surrounding the decision not to air an investigation into former BBC personality Jimmy Savile's serial history of sexual assault. How do you feel about those negative headlines?

Some of the criticisms, not all of them, but a fair amount of them have been fair. Some things have gone wrong. The key thing for me in my job is to try now to look forward. To learn the lessons from the past but not get so embedded in them that we don't move forward and focus on our audiences...It's very different in America. Every person in Britain pays for the BBC. I think they get incredible value for their money, but we are responsible to them.

Is there a chance we might see more U.S. producers, directors or actors make their way to the BBC?

We want to make the world's best programs. For that, you've got to work with the best people in the world, and there are some amazing American writers, producers, directors and performers who would be amazing to work with. We are also co-producing more and more with America -- such as The Wrong Mans, which is co-produced with Hulu -- so we are looking more and more for these partnerships. We also co-produce a fair amount with BBC America [which is run by BBC Worldwide, a separate division that monetizes BBC programing globally]. We've got The Musketeers coming up next year, which is looking extremely good. We also got Dustin Hoffman appearing in Roald Dahl's Esio Trot [set to air on BBC One].

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How important are ratings to the BBC?

I don't want to use public money to make programs that no one watches -- I don't think that's a good use of public money. I want our programs to be watched by as many people as possible. At the same time, it doesn't become the be-all and end-all. We have to make sure our programs are distinctive and fresh. So ratings matter, but only as part of the story.

What went into the decision to interrupt regular programming to cover the royal baby?

If you think an event is so significant to the public that you need to tell them straightaway, then you interrupt programs; if you think it can wait until the next news broadcast, then you wait. With the royal baby, the public had become so interested in it that we needed to cover it carefully. People come to the BBC for those big, nationally important moments.

Who do you view as competition for the BBC these days?

The way I'm talking to my teams about it is that up until now, our competition have been the other traditional broadcast rivals in the U.K. - ITV, BSkyB, Channel 4 and so on. What I'm saying very clearly to my staff is we have to realize now that we're in a battle for screen time. It's not just about those competitors, but also Facebook, YouTube and Netflix, Google and video games. They are not really televisions anymore. Increasingly they are  screens, which are for television, the Internet and games. It is a broader, more globalized ecology that we are now part of. We are fighting for media screen time with a wide range of local and global competitors, which are both television and digital.

How do you get more screen time? How do you win this battle?

You got to really understand your audience. At the same time, people don't know the thing they haven't seen yet. So, you also have to be really risk-taking and aim to surprise them. Often, things that people like most are things that surprise them and they haven't seen before.
So, you are constantly looking to find the risky, the new, the fresh, the imaginative and the inventive.

Is there something that makes a show or coverage of news a typical BBC show? Is there a BBC-iness that programming can and should have and is that changing?
There isn't an exact template, but we want to be known for the very high quality of our programs, their impartiality and balance, I want us to be known as the greatest storytellers in the world. It's a mix of quality and storytelling that is at the heart of what we do. Of course you see great programs from other content providers, too, but we need to do it as consistently as we can. I also want our content to have a quality of Britishness to it that makes us unique in the marketplace. That can make us stand out in the market.
What is Britishness?

That's a good question. You can see it in Doctor Who. You can see it in Sherlock. You can see it in Top Gear. Those are BBC brands that travel around the world very successfully. You can see it in Strictly Come Dancing. It can sometimes have a quality of eccentricity. It can be very characterful, and it can be very entertaining, but also rooted in quality and originality.

How important are big entertainment shows for the BBC, especially on Saturday night?

[A former BBC boss said the BBC had the job to inform, educate and entertain.] I take inform and educate very seriously, but I also take the entertainment bit seriously. If you ask the audience about that, one of the things they talk about is they want to be entertainment and they want to laugh. There are certain constituencies that think we shouldn't do that, but it's not what the audience tells us. Those big Saturday entertainment shows are one of the key ways we entertain the public at the BBC. We will keep doing Saturday night entertainment.

How difficult is it to find a big entertainment show for Saturday night these days?

I think it's hugely challenging and I think it's globally challenging. Right around the world people are looking for what's the next turn of the wheel. The person who cracks that is going to do very well for themselves.

Why is it so challenging?

Expectations are so high. This generation has been very impressive - great drama, great passion, huge scale, great jeopardy. That just makes it very challenging.

Why did you decide to go into TV?

I have always loved storytelling. At university, I did an English degree, a literature degree. And I love the ability of television and the media to tell fantastic stories about real life and fictional lives. That's what inspired me to work in television.

How closely do you work with new BBC director general and top boss Tony Hall?

I see him most days. He is a very accessible, collaborative leader who listens. He is a very good listener and very thoughtful. And he is very committed to the BBC. I have got a great working relationship with him and I talk to him very regularly.

What do you want your time as head of BBC Television to be remembered for?

I want it to be known as a time when BBC Television was incredibly creative, people had huge fun working here in a great atmosphere and we were known for being the best storytellers in the world.