Steve Clarke talks to A+E’s Heather Jones about the lure of a career in pay-TV.
Heather Jones is living proof that a working-class, non-metropolitan woman can make it to the top in TV. But, after listening to her recount her life story, you can’t help thinking that she was always bound to succeed.
As UK General Manager she oversees A+E Networks’ UK channels including HISTORY, Lifetime, Crime + Investigation and the recently launched BLAZE. A+E Networks UK is a joint venture with Sky and also operates across central and Eastern Europe, Benelux, Nordic countries, Middle East and Africa.
Jones, 46 and the mother of three children (Alice, 15, Joe, 13, and Franklyn, 6), has worked in the British pay-TV business for 20 years and makes no secret of her commercially driven dedication to popular television.
Her commissions are honed to try and grab attention in the clutter of the post-multichannel world – Britain’s Next Top Model, Dance Mums with Jennifer Ellison, Pawn Stars UK, Sean Bean on Waterloo, Measuring Evil: Britain’s Worst Killers, Britain’s Darkest Taboos, Crimes That Shook Britain and, recently, Ronnie O’Sullivan’s American Hustle.
“When you are not top of the EPG, having a brilliant piece of TV isn’t enough. You also have to make sure you’ve got the necessary ingredients to make the noise that’s going to get people to watch it,” she says.
Jones is someone who has always known her own mind. As a teenager, she rejected an offer from Oxford to read English, much to the annoyance of her father, a carpenter.
Instead, she did a drama degree at Aberystwyth University, graduating with a 2:1. “All I ever wanted to do was work in TV. I loved TV. As a young girl, I didn’t watch much TV but, by the time I was a teenager, I was hooked. I was obsessed by Coronation Street and even Crossroads.”
Jones was brought up in rural Somerset, where she attended the local comprehensive, Holyrood Community School. Her housewife mother encouraged her daughter to dance, sing and play the piano. “I was on stage in the local panto when I was five,” she recalls. “At 10, I was offered a place to be a professional dancer but the funding dried up.”
Tall and striking, Jones looks as if she is heading for a red-carpet awards bash, rather than running a company located in a busy mall in west London’s Hammersmith. Her tailored dress is a dazzling pink that matches her nails and lipstick. It is Monday afternoon and Jones is back in the office after a week’s skiing with her family: “I don’t have much technique but I am fearless.” No surprise there. Her husband, who stays at home to care for the kids, is documentary-maker Matt Webster.
Despite her can-do attitude, getting started in TV proved difficult. Jones applied for graduate schemes at both the BBC and Channel 4 but failed to land an interview. Undaunted, she competed for and won a one-year scholarship at the University of California.
It was 1991 when the course ended. The UK was deep in recession, so, fluent in French, she decided “to run away to Paris”. She got a job at Euro Disney, eventually using a contact she made there to find work as a researcher at the Disney-owned Buena Vista Productions in London.
Her obvious focus and appetite for hard work meant that it was not long before her career began an upward curve. At Flextech, she ran youth channel Trouble, before joining Viacom as Managing Director of Paramount Comedy Channels and subsequently becoming director of television for MTV Europe.
Having joined A+E in the summer of 2013 as VP of programming, she was twice promoted to reach her present job, general manager UK and SVP content and creative.
Jones says: “As a woman, the media is a great place to work. But I do feel that we are under-represented in the boardroom.” She adds: “The challenge is how we get more senior women working in the business side of television.”
What do women need in order to make it to the boardroom? Jones pauses before answering: “Confidence is a big part of it. The skills and the talents are there. Women sometimes have a tendency to self-check and to self-doubt, more than men do. That limits their ability to progress.”
At A+E, she has launched two channels: a local version of the female-skewed Lifetime and a new station, Blaze, aimed at “slightly older, more downmarket men”.
"The challenge is how we get more senior women working in the business side of television”
History (formerly The History Channel) is the company’s flagship offering. Commentators have long dubbed it “The Hitler Channel”. Jones denies that History is still synonymous with the German dictator: “If you haven’t watched History for 10 years, you still think it’s the Hitler channel.… We felt cleansed of that and we’re now ready to do Hitler again.”
Hence, Hunting Hitler, which recently completed its second season and was accused by Variety of trivialising its subject matter.
She agrees that History needs to do, well, more history and trim the factual entertainment: “One of our priorities is that there is going to be a lot more history on History going forward.
“People say: ‘Where’s the history in Pawn Stars?’ Pawn Stars is absolutely designed to be a mass-market show about history. You’ve got these wonderful characters, who are family, who run a real business,” she says. “History is for the man who likes a pub quiz and who likes the little nuggets that cab drivers have.”
Asked about her biggest achievements so far at A+E, she highlights the new channels and the increase in home-grown shows, plus the ability to acquire bigger shows from the US.
An example of the latter is the remake of Roots, initially broadcast by BBC Four in the UK, but due to be shown by History later in the year.
“We don’t have the money to go and buy Grey’s Anatomy or CSI,” Jones admits. “We can’t compete financially with the likes of Living or Channel 4 for those massive procedurals.”
As much of her US content supply pipeline is high-volume, her domestic commissions are usually short series, allowing “proper money” to be spent on these shows.
At the moment, Jones is commissioning around 200 hours a year of original programmes. “I want local content to be the driver of all our networks. Across the networks, our biggest shows are the local commissions,” she says.
Her most expensive show to date is Ronnie O’Sullivan’s American Hustle, which she claims had “a terrestrial-sized budget”. Ultimately, she would like a third of her schedules to be made up of original content.
So, where does her business acumen come from? “I’ve only ever worked in pay-TV,” she says. “Therefore, any model that I look at is, by definition, a commercial model.
“I’ve always been a deal-maker, ever since I was little.
“When I first moved from production into channel management, when I became channel manager of Trouble, the first thing I had to do was renegotiate The Fresh Prince of Bel Air deal with Warner Bros.
“I was petrified. I’d never done an acquisitions deal before, but the euphoria I felt when I closed that deal was amazing.”
Clearly, she feels at home being employed by US-owned firms. “I love working for American businesses where, if you’ve got a great idea, they’re willing to back you…. A+E is an extraordinary company. Being a joint venture, it’s effectively a private company. They look at things in the long term – what do these brands want to be in five years’ time?
“There’s no distraction of quarterly Wall Street calls that affect your budgets. It’s all about long-term sustainability. It’s a company that’s entirely run by producers, which speaks to me enormously.”