Interview: Danny Cohen

Some say he has helped ruin a national institution, but all the controller of BBC3 wants to do is get young people

By Simon Round, May 7, 2009
Danny Cohen: arrived at the BBC from Channel 4, where he had to deal with the Celebrity Big Brother race row involving Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty

Danny Cohen: arrived at the BBC from Channel 4, where he had to deal with the Celebrity Big Brother race row involving Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty

For nearly two years, Danny Cohen has held one of the most controversial posts at the BBC. It is not that anyone thinks Cohen is failing in his job as controller of BBC3, but rather that heavyweights, including Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys, have attacked his channel’s very right to exist.

Needless to say, Cohen disagrees. He claims to know his audience — indeed, until recently he was one of the channel’s targeted viewers in the 16-34 age range. No more, however. He jokes: “I’m 35 now — I left the BBC3 age range in January. It’s all over for me now.”

Cohen, who was raised in Edgware, north London, and attended Rosh Pinah primary school, was an even more youthful 33 when he took over the BBC3 reins in 2007. Yet he was no rookie, having worked his way up through the ranks at Channel 4, becoming head of its youth channel, E4. His swift rise has led some to label him ruthlessly ambitious, yet his manner is friendly and his views on broadcasting are insightful.

But does this smart, Oxford-educated TV executive actually sit down to watch BBC3 programmes like Freaky Eaters, Snog Marry Avoid and Lily, the controversial chat show fronted by the scatty singer Lily Allen? The answer, he says, is yes: “I have very eclectic tastes in telly. I watch everything from mainstream popular stuff to high-end BBC4-type documentaries. I watch lots of things on BBC3.”

He is certainly robust in his defence of the channel which has been accused of dumbing down the Beeb, patronising young audiences and depriving other channels of funds for worthier projects. But Cohen points out that the BBC should be for everyone, and that includes young people.

“Those who accuse BBC3 of being dumbed down are clearly not watching us. In fact, the ones who criticise BBC3 are not in even in our target audience. For example, our new comedy show, Horne and Corden, has been negatively received by critics but it’s on track to be the most successful comedy ever on BBC3. If people outside our target audience liked everything we were doing then I’d be doing my job wrong.”

However, Cohen is adamant that his job is not purely about ratings. In fact, one of the reasons that he wanted to move from commercial to public broadcasting was a desire to initiate innovative programming — much of it intelligent as well as provocative, he claims. “I could give you a great list of things which would surprise people who don’t watch the channel. We were nominated for a Bafta for a series called Blood Sweat and T-shirts, which is about young British people who went to work in the Indian sweatshops where their clothes are made. This is a series about globalisation and its impact on the developing world but we found a way of doing it which would engage young audiences. We’ve also done documentaries about young soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.”

While he does not directly criticise his predecessors, he has shied away from the kind of provocative programme titles — F*** off I’m Fat being a prime example — which used to draw criticism to the channel. “You need titles which attract people to watch the programme, but there’s no point in being provocative for its own sake,” he says.

Not that his own career has been devoid of controversy. He and his team at Channel 4 were criticised for the way they handled the Jade Goody-Shilpa Shetty race row on Celebrity Big Brother in 2005. “It was a big issue at the time and obviously Jade continued to be a big fascination to people. There are a lot of people cashing in on her and I certainly don’t want to be associated with that. I didn’t know Jade well at all.”

Since his move to the BBC, the Cohen treatment has certainly had its effect. In the past two years BBC3’s share of the youth market has grown 10 per cent, and it won the Digital Channel of the Year award at the Edinburgh TV festival last year. However, even if young people are tuning in, is it right to ghettoise them in one channel? After all, there is no channel designated for the 35-50 age group or for pensioners. Cohen again finds himself doing what no controller of BBC1 or BBC2 has ever had to do — defending the need for his channel.

“There are some very clear arguments for BBC3,” he says. “The first is that young people pay their licence fee too. The BBC undertook some research a few years ago which showed that young viewers were actually not watching the BBC as much as they should. If we believe in the BBC and the licence fee, we have to make sure that young people are watching now, because who is to say they are going to come back and watch it in 20 years time? If you look at BBC1 and BBC2, although they don’t announce they have a demographic focus, they do a good job in general of serving different audience groups. The difference with young people is that we have to say very clearly: ‘This is for you’.”

But who exactly are his viewers? There is a huge difference between what a 16-year-old wants to watch and someone of Cohen’s age. “Some programmes definitely skew towards the younger end of the spectrum and some towards the older end,” he says. “If you can find the right sweet spot you can attract both ends of the age scale.”

However, he has limited funds to achieve this with. The need to make savings at the corporation means that his annual budget has shrunk by around £10 million. “The trick is trying to do it without the audience noticing. You try not to damage the eight o clock to 11 o clock peak zone too much.”

Cuts or no cuts, Cohen is excited about the future of broadcasting — a future in which, given his youth and high profile in the industry, he is likely to have a significant role. He feels that the distinction between TV and internet will progressively become more blurred.

“In the medium term, the big question is over how much is going to be on telly and how much on the internet. Will TV and the internet essentially become just one screen in the same box? I think that that is where we will get to. There will still be a schedule but I think on-demand services will become more important. I am trying to make BBC3 a multi-platform thing that combines TV and the web.”

So much for the high-tech future. But right now, BBC3 has a schedule which harks back to the 1960s in the sense that programming does not even start until 7pm — an oddity in today’s 24-hour broadcasting world.

Cohen blaims the technology. “It’s partly about which spectrum is available and the fact that this spectrum only becomes available at 7pm. Basically, the kids’ channels run until 7pm… and we share a pipe with them.”

Last updated: 12:25pm, May 7 2009