Danny Cohen: the golden boy flies away

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Danny Cohen speaks to The Oxford Student just twenty-four hours before announcing his departure from the BBC.

Speaking to Director of BBC Television about Oxford life, I could be talking to the student next to me at a lecture. There is something energetic about Danny Cohen, despite that he left Oxford “over twenty years ago.” He is engaged, passionate and professional, but begins by telling me how much he enjoyed his English degree.

“I was quite geeky about my degree,” he laughs. “I was someone who would always get essays done quite early.”

Perhaps it is this energy that in 2010 earned Cohen his appointment as controller of BBC1 at the age of thirty-six, the channel’s youngest controller since 1965. He was subsequently lauded in the press as “the golden boy” of British Televsion. However Cohen’s career began at Channel 4, where he served as Head of E4, commissioning shows such as The Inbetweeners and Skins. In 2010 he made the switch to BBC3 and then BBC1, where he was behind the likes of Call the Midwife, Poldark and The Voice. Since 2013 he has held his position as Director of BBC Television.

Then came last Tuesday’s announcement: he is to leave the BBC. It is understood that he will step down in November. The Oxford Student spoke to him just twenty-four hours before he went public with his departure. He is clearly still passionate about the Corporation, but he discusses its challenges and its future.

But the future of the BBC looks increasingly unclear with its charter due for renewal by the end of 2016, and government cuts to the licence fee by exempting those over seventy-five.

“My sense is that in any period when the charter is renewed, there is a degree of uncertainty.”

Cohen’s departure will only add to the uncertainty, but he remains focussed on the task at hand. “The thing I’ve said to my teams is that the key is to focus on the output. There is a lot of politics going on, but you can’t be too distracted by that. We’ve got to ask: are we delivering great shows for licence fee payers? That’s our primary concern and that’s what people care about: what we have on this week, next month or next year.”

One such political question put to the BBC by the government’s charter renewal committee is whether the corporation feels it is “crowding out the competition” in its expansion online and in television. Cohen feels that this is far from the truth.

“There’s very little evidence of that [crowding out the competition]. There are more TV channels than there’s ever been. ITV is a bigger company with a higher share price than it’s had for quite some time. Sky continues to build its subscription base. Netflix is building its subscription base very strongly.”

In his opinion, the accusation is more directed at the BBC’s online presence than its television, but it is equally unfounded.

“What changed things fundamentally is the Internet, and the BBC is sometimes criticised in the area of newspapers for its online news presence. But we all know that newspapers are suffering structural problems in every country in the world, and those countries do not have the BBC website as an issue. I don’t buy those arguments really. If this was an issue for the BBC’s website, then newspapers wouldn’t be having structural declines in America and other developed countries.”

In fact, Cohen believes that it is essential for the BBC to continue its online expansion in order to keep up and stay ahead of the shifting tides of television. In late 2014, Director-General Tony Hall announced that BBC3 would move online. The decision has been met with controversy, but Cohen believes it is putting the channel aimed at young people ahead of the curve.

“We are reflecting how things are changing. One of the things that people ask is, “Does the BBC take enough risks? Is an innovator?” What we can see happening over time is that more people, and I’d imagine many students, watch TV via iPlayer and other downloads. If the BBC weren’t to respond to that, I think we’d be mad.

“I think that people try to simplify what we do too much. We are not giving up on Television, we just want to be brilliant at both [television and online services]. So we still have great channels – BBC1, BBC2, BBC4 – and we’re going to play much of the BBC content that we do online via those channels. But we also want to make sure that we are brilliant at internet based TV, because we know that more and more young people are watching TV on the internet. The ambition is to make sure that the BBC is safe for the next five to ten years in that sense. So as audience habits, particularly amongst young people, change we get really good at an early stage at delivering TV via the Internet.”

Cohen is passionate about this. He does not feel that he has turned his back on BBC3. “It’s controversial in some ways, but for me it would be more controversial if the BBC wasn’t responding and disrupting itself because the Internet has disrupted the way people view things.”

In any period when the charter is renewed, there is a degree of uncertainty.

When the BBC iPlayer was launched in 2005, it was surrounded by a similar degree or controversy and innovation. The same was the case when the BBC online service was officially launched in 1997.

“I wasn’t here [at the BBC] at the time, but when the BBC started the news website in the late Nineties it was quite controversial because it meant moving money out of the thing we were currently spending money on. Thank God the people then had the vision to do that. When we launched the iPlayer it was also controversial. People asked why we needed it and why we were taking money away from other things. Thank God we got in early and developed a service that is so successful. I hope we’re doing a similar thing again that allows us to get ahead of the competition.”

That said, Cohen does not have any concrete predictions for the future of television. He believes that the BBC must remain attuned to the ways in which people are watching, without getting ahead of itself and prophesying about television’s future.

“The truth is no one has any idea. We are in such a period of massive change that anyone who makes a predication beyond about three to five years is making it up. If you think that less than ten years ago Facebook and YouTube arrived and how transformative they’ve been. People who are broadcasting beyond 2020 must be guesswork. The potential for the internet is so vast.”

Cohen explains that the role of a good commissioner is not to make these predictions, but to make sure that the BBC continues to produce quality television. Did he ever feel a tension between his role as a commissioner and his tastes as a viewer?

“It’s a question that goes to heart of whether you’re a good commissioner or not, because whether you’re pitching or commissioning, the absolute key is to look beyond what interests you. Often people have come in and pitched something. You can see how passionate they are about it. You can see how much it matters to them, but they haven’t thought enough about whether it’s interesting to a broader range of people. The ability to look beyond your own interests is really crucial to success in both pitching ideas and commissioning them.”

This tension between personal and public interest is often unpredictable. After all, who would have imagined that a show about baking set in a tent would become not only prime-time viewing, but one of the BBC’s most successful exports?

So does the man in charge of the TV we view watch much himself? The only show he recommends beyond the BBC is Netflix’s Narcos, the type of company with which he’s been strongly linked, as well as BBC’s Doctor Foster, Strictly, and Match of the Day. With a job in the US looming, perhaps Cohen will appreciate even more the Britishness of the television that he loves to watch. He’s excited and “confident” about the BBC schedule until the end of his tenure and Christmas, which includes the return of hit shows Sherlock and Luther, as well as period drama Dickensian and the BBC’s first adaption of John le Carré since 1982 with The Night Manager featuring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie.

“I do watch a huge amount of TV,” he admits. “Partly because I’m responsible for all of the BBC’s TV channels and all of its output outside of news and sport, so I need to keep up with what we’re doing, but also with what the competition’s doing. There’s other shows that I really love and want to watch with my wife. It’s key to my job, but I’ve always loved television and that’s why I’ve ended up involved in the industry.”