Make 'Em Laugh, Make 'Em Cry

He's only 37, but Danny Cohen, who heads the BBC's most-watched TV station, is already being touted as a possible director general of the entire corporation. What's his winning formula?

"There is a sense in the media in Britain that American drama and American television are naturally superior to our own," says Danny Cohen, the head of BBC One, the most-watched television channel in Great Britain. "I think there are some absolutely fantastic American shows. I watch and I love '30 Rock,' I love 'The Wire.' I just don't believe it's always better than ours, and actually a lot of our drama is of very strong quality."

"I think that sometimes British critics look at American television and it makes them feel a bit snobbish about British television, and actually a very small amount of the people watch those American shows here in the UK. Most British viewers want to watch British shows. I think it's certainly the case that if you get home in the evening in the UK, you are very likely to find something good to watch on television. Often you could go home in the evening when you're traveling in America and you can flick around the channels as well and never find anything to watch."


Cohen, 37, who spoke with Haaretz by phone from London, is the youngest person ever to be appointed to the prestigious post of "controller" of the flagship channel of British television. The promotion came a little over a year ago, in October 2010, following Cohen's successful stewardship of BBC Three, where he spent three years. A Times article in 2008 described Cohen as "the boy wonder of British television." Other newspapers in the UK have speculated that Cohen could already be appointed director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation in the next few years.

A graduate of Oxford University, Cohen is responsible, among other things, for the addition to the broadcast schedule of such successful series as "Skins," "Supernanny" and "Being Human." In the course of his tenure at BBC Three, the channel increased its share of viewers between the ages of 16 and 34 by a spectacular 58 percent. Cohen is particularly proud of this accomplishment - as well as the fact that BBC Three was named Digital Channel of the Year at the Edinburgh International TV Festival during three of the past four years. "We changed BBC Three and took it upmarket in such a short period of time. I think that is what I am the most proud of," he says.

Prior to his arrival in public television, Cohen worked in various capacities at Channel 4, including as head of documentaries, and he was also the director of E4, a pay-TV channel. He is engaged to Noreena Hertz, an economist who had been described in the same Times article from 2008 as a "glamorous intellectual." She is also the great-granddaughter of Rabbi Joseph Hertz, the late chief rabbi of the UK. Her sister and father live in Tel Aviv, Cohen notes, and he has relatives all around Israel - a country he has visited multiple times. As a child, he attended a Jewish school in northern London.

Wanted: comedy

BBC One is a public channel that debuted on November 2, 1936. At the time, it was simply called the BBC Television Service. But in 1964, when BBC Two was launched, Television Service was renamed BBC One. It receives an annual budget underwritten by a television license fee, so it is not a commercial channel. The budget for the 2011-12 broadcast year stands at 166.6 million pounds sterling.

Once there was a very distinctive look and feel about British, and specifically BBC, shows. I wonder, given the atmosphere of global formats and globalization in general, if that certain fingerprint still exists.

"I think it does, but you have to work really hard to maintain originality, to keep being innovative and resist the urge to duplicate what's worked for other channels. You've got to resist that urge, because it's a mistake. Trying to get people to try new things is all the challenge. If you give them more of what they already like, you lose direction.

"BBC One is the biggest and most-watched channel in Britain. Being a public channel, it is also the one that appeals to the entire country, the one on which all of the important national events are broadcast, like the royal wedding, for example. That may be one of its outstanding characteristics. I think the BBC's values are to combine entertainment with education. We all strive for the highest standard of quality. I think our audiences expect to see Britain's biggest stars. We've invested heavily in the entertainment programs broadcast on Saturday night. So we have a lot of drama on BBC One, more than on any other channel. If you sit down in front of the screen at 9 o'clock in the evening, you can find a good drama."

In the controller's opinion, what the channel is lacking is comedy. "I am really pushing hard to try and get more comedy into our schedules," he says. To that end, Cohen launched an initiative last summer, by which comedy writers were asked to submit screenplays for pilots. "We are hoping to discover a new generation of national comic treasures," he said in August, when the new initiative was launched.

When asked about it now, he explains: "We are trying to find the new voice of comedy on our channel. I think there is a big audience hunger for comedy, and at the moment I don't think we are giving enough of it to audiences."

When he was at BBC Three, Cohen promoted the brilliant American animated sitcom "Family Guy." Now he is asked what sort of humor he is looking for in comedy: Does his taste run more to "Little Britain" (a series of sketches with outlandish British characters and the brash humor of Matt Lucas and David Walliams, or is it more akin to "The Office," a so-called mockumentary by Ricky Gervais, which has spawned similar versions all over the world, including a highly successful one in the United States? (An Israeli version of the show is no longer being broadcast. )

"I want it to be very mainstream," Cohen explains. "On BBC One, it has to be very mainstream. A drama or a comedy on BBC One may reach six or seven or even eight million people if it's good, so I am not necessarily looking for something from the fringe with dry humor, but more laugh-out-loud sitcom-type shows with big laughs."

I have read that you're looking for comedy for the working class.

"True. I want everything that is aired on the channel to reflect the UK public that is watching it at home, so I am also looking for blue-collar comedies. I declared as much when I took this job. I want all aspects of British society to be reflected on our screen."

Aging viewers

Something else that Cohen announced when he took the BBC One position is his intention to create programs meant specifically for older audiences. Indeed, a large share of his channel's viewers are middle-aged. This objective is at odds with the approach adopted by commercial television executives, as well as advertisers, who are perpetually wooing a young audience. Surely, this approach derives in part from the different status of the channel.

"Of course, we have to aim at the entire viewing public, in order to maintain the channel's status as being the biggest one in Britain," Cohen notes. "You have to take into account that the average age of the viewers is 50. So as opposed to commercial television, which tries to attract as young an audience as possible, what we are trying for at BBC One is to reach audiences of all ages, and that must include reaching a good amount of the aging population."

"We have a good amount of shows that we know naturally reach young audiences," he adds. "We have programs like 'The Apprentice' [a reality show based on an American version], which is very important in terms of young audiences. We are also launching a new show next year called 'The Voice' [a singing competition in an international format; an Israeli version will soon be aired on Channel 2]. It has done well in America, and we're hoping that it will help us attract young audiences, as well. It is expected to be launched in the first half of 2012. The judge-coaches on our show will be the singer Jessie J, who is a big young star here, will-i-am from the Black Eyed Peas, as well as the pop legend Tom Jones and the soloist Danny O'Donoghue from the band The Script. And 'Doctor Who,' the science-fiction drama, is very important, as well."

The BBC is also part of the wave of reality shows and the global formats.

"That's right. It's also true that quite a lot of the formats the BBC has created are now selling around the world: 'Strictly Come Dancing,' which is known as 'Dancing with the Stars' in America and other places, that's a BBC format sold around the world. Also 'Doctor Who' and 'Top Gear.' But I think British audiences also really like local content produced specifically for our audience. The majority of what we do is really just focused on Britain, and if it's a format that can work in other parts of the world, that's a bonus."

As someone who hears many ideas a day, how do you know when you're hearing a really good one? What's your methodology, if you have one?

"The truth is that the really good ideas stand out quite quickly. I think it's very hard to come up with ideas that are strong enough to work on a prime-time schedule. They are not all that hard to find because they have an originality and quality that make them stand out from the pack. One of them is 'The Inbetweeners' [a successful British sitcom about suburban youth], which I commissioned for E4. A feature film that is an adaptation of that series came out this year.

"Another script that immediately stood out is 'Being Human' [a supernatural drama series that rode the wave of vampire films and TV series. Its American version is now broadcast in Israel on Yes], which we put on BBC Three. Season four of the series will be shown this year."

What is the most difficult decision you have yet had to make in this position?

"The hardest thing is deciding to stop making a program that's an audience favorite. We don't follow the American practice, according to which a series that doesn't produce good ratings is cancelled. We shoot a series and we broadcast all of its episodes. But there are series that, even if they are beloved have exhausted their potential, and you have to clear room in the broadcast schedule for new things. I cancelled 'My Family' [a series that is now shown in Israel on BBC Entertainment, the local channel that broadcasts programs from the British public channels]."

If you say the average age of the viewers is 50, who are going to be your new viewers a few years from now? How do you ensure that there will be an audience, and the question that worries everyone in the business: Where do you see television in general in the future?

"I think television is going to remain really healthy. Actually, in the UK the television audience has been rising in 2011. The key is to keep it well-funded enough to make really great drama and funny comedy. So long as the channels are well funded, we should remain very strong in the next few years. Next year, BBC One will have 18 new dramas.

"Among these dramas is one called 'Call the Midwife,' starring Miranda Hart, about a group of midwives in 1950s' England, which should be really good. There is also a series called 'Prisoners' Wives,' about four women, who are very different from one another, and their men, who are serving time in prison. It looks very promising. And there is also [comedy show] 'The Royal Bodyguard,' about a former soldier appointed to protect members of the royal family.

"I am a fan of dramas, comedy and I even make sure to watch 'EastEnders,' but I also watch a lot of football and cricket. I don't miss 'Match of the Day' [a sports-news roundup]. But the thing is that when you run a channel, you do not watch the television of today. Rather, you are busy watching the future - the television of next year."