Michael Jackson has been an innovative indie and CEO of Channel 4. He also ran channels at the BBC and Universal. He still fervently supports committed programme-makers, hears Steve Clarke
Michael Jackson's stellar career encapsulates much of the creative history of TV during the past 30 years. He was an innovative independent producer back in the 1980s, reinvented BBC Two in the 1990s, and went on to run Channel 4. There, he launched Queer as Folk, Ali G and Big Brother, before crossing the Atlantic to work for the legendary mogul Barry Diller.
Today, still based in New York, his career has swung full circle. Jackson is once again working as a producer.
There was little in his family background to suggest he'd become one of the most influential TV executives of his generation – apart from being a true child of the television age. Interviewed last month at the University of Westminster (he was a student there in the 1970s, when it was known as the Polytechnic of Central London), Jackson recalled his childhood in provincial Macclesfield.
He emphasised how television had given him a cultural lifeline at a time, in the 1960s, when there was "a sense of culture being rationed". At the age of 12, Jackson was reputedly determined to forge a media career.
There may have been just two TV channels, but Jackson was struck by the relatively new medium's unprecedented ability to entertain and stimulate: "The world I was brought up in was a very boring place. People didn't go on foreign holidays. [But] TV had an extraordinary kinetic power... I was fascinated by TV. I watched the 1960s unfold on television...
"I remember being disappointed that the funeral of JFK resulted in Blue Peter being cancelled."
Jackson loved American shows such as Batman and The Monkees. When BBC Two began in 1964, the new service helped to widen his cultural horizons.
"As I got older, I loved things such as Late Night Line-Up, World Cinema and Man Alive. It was definitely the most sophisticated culture in my life."
His course in media studies at the Polytechnic of Central London forced Jackson to "think about the world and be critical about it... Given that most of my working life I've been an editor of one kind or another, that's where I learnt my skills. "The practical side showed me how difficult it was to hone things and to create meaning."
On graduating, he worked first as a lobbyist for a group campaigning to launch Channel 4 – earning £30 a week. One of the objectives was to prevent the upstart becoming a channel owned by ITV.
Because he lacked an Oxbridge degree, Jackson figured the best way to get on in TV was to become an independent producer. Channel 4's launch in 1982 provided him with an opportunity.
He never thought about joining the BBC or, by implication, ITV, because the established networks seemed to operate for the benefit of "a charmed circle".
"In those days, getting a job on The South Bank Show was very prestigious. They used to get 2,000 applications for one researcher's job," said Jackson. "There were very few jobs in TV because there was just ITV and the BBC... TV felt very glamorous and far away. It was not something you were likely to be a part of."
His first show for Channel 4 was one of its early hits, the documentary series The Sixties, followed by Open the Box, which looked at how we interact with TV. Next up was The Media Show, edited by Jackson.
"You could rent an office in Soho, sit around with a few like-minded people and invent something from scratch," he said. "It turned out that you didn't need a studio, endless people and a film library. You could do it all yourself."
In 1988, Jackson was persuaded to join the BBC as the founding editor of The Late Show, hailed as a new kind of late-night show that defied genres.
Out of The Late Show came Later with Jools Holland, still a staple of the BBC Two schedule more than 20 years later.
I wouldn’t have been any good as director-general. The thing that motivates me is being an editor
"I was very resistant to doing The Late Show," recalled Jackson. "It sounded too dangerous but, of course, turned out to be an incredible experience...
"Sometimes, it was a magazine programme. Sometimes, it was a documentary. As we said at the time, it was very postmodern... You could have an idea in the bath and go in and make it happen."
In 1991, Jackson was promoted to Head of Music and Arts. Aged 33, he was the youngest head of department in the corporation's history.
Two years later, he succeeded Alan Yentob as Controller of BBC Two.
"That is the best job in television," Jackson opined. "You don't have to manage anybody. For me, it was about being able to express my own interests and tastes.
"You're not under the whip of having to get big audiences. I loved the whole scheduler thing, controlling the time and space of television... That doesn't matter any more in the age of the iPlayer."
Under his leadership, BBC Two's flagship shows included the award-winning documentary The Death of Yugoslavia, produced by Norma Percy, and dramas such as This Life, produced by Tony Garnett's World Productions, and Peter Flannery's state-of-the-nation, nine-part serial, Our Friends in the North.
The latter came to be regarded as one of the defining TV dramas of the 1990s; it famously involved "many more than seven years of development hell", according to Jackson.
Briefly, he ran BBC One, a job he enjoyed far less than being in charge of BBC Two because he had to win big audiences. "It is much more a technical exercise," he said. "And it is really hard finding shows that, in those days, 18 million people wanted to watch."
Was it fun working for John Birt, the BBC Director-General who, more than two decades later, still divides opinion? "Yes, it was fun. Other than in current affairs, where John had terrible taste, he had really good judgement about programmes. His taste and instinct were exactly mine.
"It's a thing about John that is not sufficiently recognised. He really promoted imaginative television."
Did Jackson regret leaving the BBC to become CEO at Channel 4? "I loved working at the BBC. Once you knew how to press the levers, it was just like working at a Hollywood studio.
"You were working at a building called the Television Centre. You were really at the centre. It's no accident that there is no building called Television Centre now because TV is not central in the way it was then."
On several occasions, Michael Jackson's name was linked to the BBC director-general's job. Prior to Tony Hall's appointment, journalists speculated that Jackson was in the running.
The truth could not be more different. "I wouldn't have been any good as director-general," Jackson admitted. "The thing that motivates me is being an editor. I would have been most interested in programme strategy. The DG job is - rightly or wrongly - less about that than before. Except of course you are very much Editor-in-chief when someone screws up!"
Being in charge of Channel 4 involved a different set of challenges to working at the BBC. Because of his work lobbying for the station and producing for it, he had a "sentimental attachment" to the broadcaster.
Looking back on Channel 4, Jackson said it was "incredible" how successful it had become and how it had changed since Jeremy Isaacs launched the network.
Flush with money, Jackson was able to invest in comedy, entertainment and, controversially, expensive US shows such as Ally McBeal, Sex and the City and The West Wing.
One priority was The 11 O'Clock Show, inspired by Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. "It was much more about wanking than political satire," Jackson observed. "But out of it came Ali G and all sorts of other talented people who went on to do amazing things."
What was he most proud of during his time at Channel 4, which culminated in winning 11 Baftas in 2001? "I'd say Queer as Folk. It was very much of its moment and allowed an important writer [Russell T Davies] to tell you about his world. It wasn't a problem drama. It was proudly a reflection of what it was like."
After such a stimulating career, often at the cutting edge of British TV, working across the Atlantic was a bit of a comedown.
"Actually, the work itself didn't turn out to be very interesting," he said. "Running American cable channels... They're very dependent on a few big drama commissions. It was fine, but what was utterly fascinating was the social anthropology of being part of American television."
He added: "It is, as they say, high school with money... and incredibly dull and insular... Everybody is continually looking over their shoulder at people who are thinking exactly the same thing."
But Jackson stayed in the US and helped Diller develop content for the digital space.
He is now an American citizen working as a producer. Jackson's projects include a TV version of Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels, scripted by David Nicholls. He is also an executive producer on the BBC's keenly anticipated remake of Civilisation, a co-production with Jane Root's Nutopia; Jackson worked with Root at the beginning of his career and the two are old friends.
He spends most of his time in New York but he is intimately connected with British television. He supports an increase in the BBC licence fee (see below). While there is much that he admires in American TV, his native land remains, in his opinion, a cultural and creative hub that produces singular shows.
"I don't watch television channels much, I watch TV programmes. I watch a lot of BBC shows on the iPlayer," said Jackson. "I like the richness and diversity, still, of specialist factual, which is something that America, by and large, isn't interested in.
"The thing that I would most wish for at the BBC would be to take BBC Four and turn it into a low-budget version of what Channel 4 used to be.
"I look at what, say, Adam Curtis and Louis Theroux do... I'd like to see much more of that."
He added: "You can't beat the conviction of a good programme-maker. That is one of the things that Tony Hall wants to do with Civilisation."
Michael Jackson was interviewed by academic John Mair on 27 April at the University of Westminster.
Why the licence fee should rise
There 'is an argument to be had about the licence fee increasing', believes Michael Jackson.
The BBC's 'critical weight of programming', he said, 'cannot be seen anywhere else in the world'.
This was particularly true of factual shows. 'If the BBC wasn't there, you wouldn't see those programmes,' he argued.
Jackson warned that the BBC may be forced to 'start dismembering itself' if the licence fee remains frozen and it continues to suffer from top-slicing.
He suggested that the BBC should be more aggressive in defending itself in the face of potential cuts: 'I do not think it is for the BBC to argue for its own dismemberment. The BBC should be arguing for the sustenance of what it has.
'Politicians may find that dismembering the BBC turns out not to be a very popular policy.'
Jackson highlighted the importance of the BBC to the UK's creative economy: '[Through Sky,] Rupert Murdoch has benefited greatly from the BBC. If you take out a pillar [such as the BBC], the whole structure will topple.'