Edinburgh TV Fest: BBC Two Boss Talks On-Air Diversity, Importance of Ratings

Janice Hadlow

Speaking at the industry gathering, Janice Hadlow also discussed competition with BBC One and the challenges of finding U.K. comedy hits for the early evening.

EDINBURGH – BBC Two controller Janice Hadlow on Thursday discussed the network's recent successes, the issue of diversity of on-air talent, the importance of ratings for the U.K. public broadcaster and the challenges of finding comedy hits for the early evening hours.

The executive, who oversees the U.K. public broadcaster's second-largest channel, also told the annual Edinburgh International Television Festival about the type of programs she is currently looking for. The Guardian is the main sponsor of the festival.

During a Q&A, Hadlow was asked why British networks generally don't make big drama orders like U.S. channels. "We have a different buying model and expectations of audiences," she explained. Plus, Britain tends to focus on a single writer for TV shows instead of writers rooms, which limits the number of episodes. "We tend to have a greater variety of dramas, and traditionally, the preference has been for variety," she added.

Asked if she feels BBC Two on-air talent, particularly in terms of show hosts and experts, was still predominantly white and male, Hadlow said that BBC Two and BBC Four have nurtured "quite a significant number" of female on-air talents and experts. But she acknowledged: "We have a better record on women than on ethnic diversity." Asked for her focus in terms of diversity, she said she was mainly looking to develop talents who can return for more than one show.

Asked about recent Twitter harassment against female politicians in the U.K. and what that means for female on-air talent, she said: "We must find ways to ensure women don't feel the price is too high [to go on TV]. We have to support people and make them feel that we're here to help."

Given that the BBC is a public broadcaster, does she care about ratings on BBC Two at all, especially given the network's focus on more highbrow content than the broader-based BBC One? "I do believe it does matter how many people watch BBC Two," Hadlow responded, highlighting that producers and creators want their shows to be seen. She added: "Things that are small aren't necessarily better."

That said, she said she was looking for a balance of big hits and shows with more modest ratings that are original or important and have immense "reputational" value. "In the end, they balance out," she said.

Corruption drama The Hour ended after two seasons, for example, as ratings were weak even though critics loves the show. Asked if the cancelation was purely driven by ratings, Hadlow said her team also had in mind other possible shows. "We can do these other things" when canceling a show that opens up a time slot, she said.

Asked about the strong ratings and new programming hits on BBC Two over the past year, Hadlow said "we had a fantastic year," quipping that this is high praise since she is generally not big on optimism. "
Right now, it's got a lot of energy, a lot of originality."

Asked if that success could come to haunt the channel, for example, because BBC flagship channel BBC One could end up taking over such hits as baking competition The Great British Bake Off, Hadlow said: "Right now, we have it. We love it. And we'll see what happens. 
We've seen programs move.
 If it does happen, you have to think bigger BBC" instead of engaging in a turf war.

The show has drawn around 5.6 million viewers, whereas typically a viewership of 3 million to 4 million is considered good for BBC Two, Hadlow said.

Asked about comedy projects, Hadlow said "comedy is the hardest thing to predict.
 You have to go with your heart." The biggest issue: "It remains a challenge to find something for a mass audience in the early evening."

One early evening comedy that has not drawn big ratings but has received a second-season order is Count Arthur Strong about a delusional out-of-work actor and the scholarly son of his former comedy partner. "Maybe people are not used to finding comedy so early [in the evening] yet, Hadlow said in explaining the decision to give the show more time. She also argued that the show creators have strong voices, which BBC Two wants, but which can polarize audiences.

Asked about her other priorities, Hadlow said "you can never have enough new talent," and her team must "constantly refresh our talent base," which reflects a channel's voice.

She also expressed an interest in ordering more distinctive documentaries, shows that combine people's passions, such as pets, with science, and possibly science fiction programming with a BBC Two twist. She said, for example, that she likes Game of Thrones, but it isn't in the traditional BBC Two sweet spot.

The executive also briefly discussed her added role of overseeing BBC Four, which has been growing its audience and has a reputation for often taking a more "quirky" approach to topics. Hadlow said the channel tries to "put you in the company of people not everyone has heard of."

She said she h
opes the two channels will collaborate more in the future. For example, next year will see the two partner for a focus on 18th century music, with BBC Two focusing on the science aspects, while BBC Four will have a more historical approach.
 "We can market together and bring the two together at moments where they can talk to each other," Hadlow explained.

Recently appointed BBC director of television Danny Cohen in a blog post before Hadlow's appearance highlighted the strong presence of BBC top executives at the festival.

"Over the next few days, Charlotte Moore (BBC One), Janice Hadlow (BBC Two and BBC Four) and Zai Bennett (BBC Three) will outline the plans for their channels for the coming year," he said. "At last year’s festival, BBC Two won the coveted Channel of the Year award, while BBC Four was named best digital channel, and [BBC One's] Sherlock picked up the accolade for best program."

He added: "I'm determined to build on this success … by delivering programs with the finest storytelling and the highest-quality production techniques, whilst also ensuring there is something to grip everyone who pays the license fee."

Concluded Cohen: "As director of television, ensuring all audiences find something they love across our channels is extremely important."

Also scheduled to appear at the festival are Kevin Spacey and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, among many others.

E-mail: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai