Danny Cohen on The Voice, axing shows and the future of BBC1

Mark Lawson talks to the controller about his first 20-months heading up the biggest channel in the country - and asks what's next...

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Politicians are typically judged on their first 100 days in office, but it’s around 400 before you can get a real sense of a TV channel controller.

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Though appointed to run BBC1 in October 2010, Danny Cohen acknowledges, 20 months on: “I felt more ownership of the schedule from Christmas 2011: with Great Expectations and The Borrowers, which I’d commissioned, then Call the Midwife and The Voice this year.

“Because of the scale of it, on BBC1 – more than any other channel – you’re the beneficiary of others. I’ve commissioned a natural history series for 2016. I don’t know where I’ll be then but you have to do it because of the time it takes to make things.”

When asked if he envies ITV1’s Downton Abbey, he answers: “I’m a fan of Downton Abbey. But I fear that, if I answered that question directly, that might be the headline so I won’t answer that.”

Cohen does say that he won’t be recommissioning the David Jason comedy The Royal Bodyguard or Upstairs Downstairs. “I wouldn’t describe them as flops. I don’t like to throw around words like that about individual programmes.

“I embrace the fact that not everything works because if nothing fails, then you’re not taking enough creative risks. It’s important that the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, takes those risks.”

The Voice was a massive gamble for Cohen that, if it had flopped, could have blighted his tenure. Even its success, though, has faced criticisms that, for instance, the judges (Tom Jones, Jessie J, Will.i.am and Danny O’Donoghue) lack the brutal honesty of Simon Cowell and his panellists on ITV talent shows.

Is their advice too nice?

“It’s one of the great aspects of the show, that tonal quality, which we are very keen to maintain. I think the emphasis on constructive criticism is one of the fresh and exciting things about it.”

Some critics, including me, also worry that the format is impure: the major innovation – that the judges listen to the auditions with their backs turned – is abandoned after the opening round, creating just another audition show.

Cohen says, “Yes, but they made their decision about who they believed in with their backs turned. The key thing is that the selection of the teams by the judges is blind.”

Should we expect the same judges next year?

“I hope so. God, yeah. I’d love all our judges to come back. I love them all in multiple ways.” Will there be tweaks to the format? “We’ll look at the end of the series but I think we’re in a good place and I don’t imagine mega-changes.”

Cohen adds, “We had to find a way into the talent show world that synced with BBC values.” 

This touches on the fact that the Corporation, even on its mass audience channel, has to be careful about formats seen purely as viewer-chasing. Could he, I wondered, ever run a constructed reality show such as The Only Way Is Essex or Made in Chelsea?

“That’s interesting. I can’t see it in the immediate future on BBC1. If I was still at BBC3, I’d be thinking about it. I’m not sure that it feels like a mainstream genre yet. Although it’s on in my house a lot.”

Asked whether humiliation-elimination shows such as Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity could ever find a place on his channel, he answers:

“Not in those forms. I really admire I’m a Celebrity: I think it’s an immensely well-produced show with great hosts. I’m not sure we’d ever do something in that tone, although that’s not to disparage it.”

But is nervousness about such formats an example of the greater level of moral scrutiny at the BBC?

“Yes and it’s absolutely right that the BBC should be scrutinised in that way. We spend public money and it should be scrutinised.”

Many producers and writers have argued that the BBC is too wary of controversy, especially since the editorial meltdown caused by Russell Brand’s and Jonathan Ross’s bullying of Andrew Sachs on Brand’s Radio 2 show.

“I think probably, looking back, there was a period after Ross-Brand – which ended people’s careers – I think there was a period of nervousness. It’s calmed down now.”

On some questions, Cohen glances at a BBC press officer while answering, particularly when I ask if BBC1’s Breakfast has been better since it moved to Salford.

“The big thing for me with those geographical moves is that viewers don’t feel there’s been a huge change.” But almost every entertainer based in the north-west, starting with Shaun Ryder, has been on the sofa.

“Oh, you’ve been counting? I haven’t had a single email saying that Breakfast is worse for the move. Is it OK if I eat a banana?”

I follow Cohen’s gaze to The One Show’s hospitality fruit basket and hand over his chosen fruit. While he eats it, I raise the potential banana-skin of Zoë Wanamaker’s claim (in an interview with me for BBC4) that the BBC1 sitcom My Family had been axed for being too middle-class.

“Not true. I’m not saying that someone didn’t tell her that. But every comedy reaches the point where it’s not as fresh as it was. The family had fled, they’d left the house! There’s only a finite amount of money and, by ending some shows, I freed the money to do Call the Midwife in January. That’s how it works.”

Because at 38 he’s one of the youngest to land the job of channel controller, Cohen is sometimes profiled as if he crawled across the maternity ward to find the remote control but he stresses he doesn’t come from a media dynasty (“My father is a crime solicitor; my mother works in a pharmacy”). However, “I always loved telly, watched loads of it. I have memories of ringing up Saturday morning phone-in shows.”

Cohen’s somewhat contradictory media image is of a forbidding intellectual with celebrity friends, including the current James Bond. Daniel Craig and his wife, actress Rachel Weisz, attended Cohen’s wedding. Does he recognise this depiction of a showbizzy brainbox?

“Do I recognise it? I don’t think I’m very forbidding. I don’t know how intellectual I am. I did an English degree. Rachel and my wife have been very close friends for a long time.”

So should we expect to see Weisz and Craig in a major BBC1 drama soon?

“No! No plans. Actually, my wife and I never talk about work.”

Cohen, though, is an optimist about both his channel’s and the medium’s future, impatient with the Homeland and Borgen-inspired cries that the real creativity is in Scandanavia and America.

“Every so often, there’ll be an American show that blows us away. But, if you go once to those selling sessions in Los Angeles, you find out what most American TV is like. I think we’ve got the most amazing television in the world in Britain, right across the range, I genuinely do.”

Some media observers will be surprised that we are having this conversation at all. Around the millennium, at the Edinburgh TV Festival and other broadcasting forums, delegates were definitively told in many sessions that conventional TV channels would not exist within a decade and yet here we all are with a network and a job of controller still entirely recognisable from that time.

Cohen laughs: “Yes, here we all are. I remember those conferences. People have been talking about the death of television and the death of scheduling and of channels for over a decade now, but my sense is that TV viewing is up at the moment. I’ve not seen much sign yet of a decline of interest. Individual programmes are the most important thing but channel brands are very powerful things, embedded in people’s lives.

“Despite what we may read and hear, most television is still watched live. The on-demand bit is still the bit at the end. Which is why clashes still irritate people.”

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This is an edited version of an article that was first published in the Radio Time (26 May – 1 June)