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BBC Three Controller Q&A: Zai Bennett

Zai Bennett 

BBC Three seems to be doing rather well at the moment. Is it business as usual or are you planning any radical changes now you’re in post?

It’s a brilliant channel and it’s on fire at the moment. It’s performing incredibly well and the most popular channel both for its audience and in peak time. Do I plan any radical changes? No. It’s about building on the success I’ve inherited from Danny who has left it in an amazing state. There are already a lot of great shows so it’s about going for more creativity and creating the next wave of brilliant shows

When you picture your archetypal BBC Three viewer how do you imagine them to be?

I try not to do that. It’s such a broad target demographic – 16 to 34 – and that can encompass a huge range of views and outlooks. In general, there’s a sort of attitude, tone and feel about Three that I go for, which is youthful. The programmes need to appeal to the whole of that age group across the schedule but it’s definitely about an attitude to life - people who have a sense of fun and enjoy life.

How do you make Three cut through? Should companies be pitching to you looking to create a sensation, or a sense of event? Or can you have too much noise?

I’d be quite happy to have the problem of too much noise. Shows have to punch above their weight on Three. They don’t have to be sensational for sensation’s sake. You want shows to have purpose, whether that be creative or social purpose, and then you hope that, from being creatively brilliant, they’ll gain viewers and create noise and hubbub. That’s the aim. I want BBC Three shows to be watched by millions of people. We don’t want lots of little niche shows, we want big shows, but we will allow them to grow. I’m not going to say, ‘Series one didn’t get a million we’re going to cancel it’. We’ll say ‘OK, creatively this show is working, let’s stick with it’, and hope that by series two or series three the audience grows. My hope is that we get a high share for our audience but it would, of course, also be nice to get millions of viewers too.

There’s a lot of talk in commissioning about events or things with a sense of event. What does that mean for BBC Three?

One thing that I do want to do with the channel is to have more, actual live television. At the moment the only live output we have is the music festivals. Live does create a sense of event, but it’s not just about having live for live’s sake. There has to be a reason why you’re going live.

An event can mean a season, and we do seasons that are mostly factual based. They are going to be concentrated, stripped across one or two weeks and made up mainly of docs and current affairs, but they could also possibly contain a drama or docudrama, and maybe even an entertainment event so they become quite multi-genre. We turn them into an event by scheduling them over a five or ten day strip so we can promote and market them as a whole. You get more bang for your buck that way. It’s very hard to get people to come to a one off documentary but if you have season there’s more chance of getting people to come to it.

A lot of people ask about how they should pitch ideas to be part of a season and how they get commissioned. Do they just get put together from a number of ideas you have in at once or is there an opportunity to pitch?

The way a season evolves is a slightly random thing. You’ll suddenly see one proposal and think, actually there’s more to that than just that single idea. Let’s look for other things to complement it. For instance there’s a docudrama from current affairs about murder that we thought was phenomenal, so we decided to do a whole week on murder and crime. Alternatively we’ll look at and use research and ask what’s important to our audience. So for instance we’re looking at programming around the area of work and employment as that’s one of the top three issues for 16-34 year olds.

Once you find the themes for the seasons will commissioners be putting that message out to producers to come up with other ideas?

Absolutely. We try not to do these things too far ahead because we don’t want to lay out a schedule of events or seasons for the next eighteen months and not leave ourselves room to be reactive to the possible changes in the country and the mood of our audience, but you need to have some planned ahead so we’ve set the themes up until April of next year. As we see that one proposal come in that triggers an idea for a season, we’ll expand from that and all the commissioners who have relevant shows will then talk to their suppliers.

A lot of the programmes that have been successful on BBC Three, perhaps surprisingly, are ones with real journalism at their heart and programmes with contributors with disabilities. Why do you think that is?

I love the fact that we take and examine serious subject areas in an entertaining and accessible way. All of the factual programming that really resonates is character-led with an amazing story. That’s fairly simple but it runs through all of them whatever the subject area, from genocide in Rwanda to a young guy who knows he’s going to die and is living his life on fast forward. We manage to tell those stories in very engaging ways.

What about talent? A lot of new talent on Three has come out of those characters like Stacey Dooley and Cherry Healey. What are you and what aren’t you looking for in terms of talent on BBC Three?

It’s a mix. BBC Three is about being British and backing new talent. Sometimes to break new talent they have to be put with pre-existing or well known talent. One thing we haven’t done on Three is have a family of talent who you recognise. If you stop someone on the street and say ‘who’s on BBC Three’ they might say Russell Howard but that could be about it. We do have lots of other brilliant young presenters and journalists. I would pick out Stacey and Cherry from that and I think we’re going to try and make them more famous. We’re going to put them on for more time so the viewers get to know them and know who they are.

Do you want producers to bring new talent to you if you already have a family of talent in mind?

Absolutely because we need new talent and there’s some backfill there and they need to grow. We’ve got Russell, Lee Nelson, Simon Brodkin, Cherry and Stacey, and Fern and Reggie are doing all our festival coverage now.  That’s great and a good basis to star from but the whole point about the channel is that we help to foster new talent.

What kind of qualities should a presenter have who’s going to make it as part of that family of talent?

It can be quite wide ranging but there is something about the people I’ve mentioned that is quite similar, They’re all accessible, all quite down to earth and they talk in the kind of language that our audience understand.

The factual talent all have that same quality of being good at conveying something through their first hand experience don’t they?

That has been the case with factual but it also somehow hampers the talent. Cherry Healey has got married and had a baby for the channel - well not for the channel but you know what I mean! We can’t keep asking her to do amazingly life changing things to make TV. We need to find other ways of using her that are more journalistic. It can’t just be about experiences. It’s more about their attitude and the way they talk to the audience.

Are there areas that absolutely don’t work for BBC Three?

Yes. I would say there are areas like cooking for instance. I also find it difficult to imagine what a quiz would look like on BBC Three. However, it’s quite a nice creative challenge to think what a BBC Three quiz would look like. Maybe there is a way to do it for BBC Three, perhaps its street based and more visceral. But really you’re not that likely to have quizzes, cooking or the sort of drama that BBC One or Two is doing on Three.

How does drama work on BBC Three? Is it a priority?

It’s a huge priority. We have three brilliant dramas on Three. Being Human’s coming back, Lip Service is coming back, Fades starts this Autumn. They are huge tentpole shows because drama and comedy really connect with the audience. Those have to be writer led and they have to fit the tone and feel of the channel. We currently have two in that are about supernatural worlds so I probably am not looking for something in that area. We’ve got one relationship drama but I’d just challenge the creative community to say what else can you come up with?

Are drama docs back in?

I like drama doc but we want all our seasons to be cross genre, not just documentaries or drama documentary. People should feel free to mix it up.

What about social media and multiplatform on Three?

Multiplatform is absolutely something we need. But we are a linear channel and I want our shows to live across all the possible media they can - mobile, online etc. We don’t really embrace social media enough and we want to have conversations with viewers on air in the junctions. In programming terms I’d love us to find a show that genuinely has social media at its heart. I haven’t seen one yet.  If you look across the channels it hasn’t really happened yet. Seven Days on Channel Four was a brave attempt but I’d like us to have a show that is successful in that area.

What do I have to have made to qualify to make a show for BBC Three? Can anyone pitch?

It’s wide open. All the commissioners have a wide range of relationships with a wide range of indies. If you’re an independent producer who has made a show and you send your idea to a commissioner and they like it they will see you. They might not see you tomorrow but they will respond, and if they like it, they’ll see you to discuss it.

If I’ve never made a show for this demographic for BBC Three or for the BBC am I still welcome?

Of course! Good ideas are always welcome. It’s just a matter of who has the best ideas. We would need reassurances that the people making the show can make the show that we’re asking for, so that can mean a co-pro, but it depends what the scale and the ambition of the show is. We will help your idea come to life.

Are there any immediate needs for BBC Three?

I think we’ve got a need for more factual entertainment. We don’t always need to be doing shows with social purpose. Sometimes they can just have creative purpose to them. Some more light fact ent is a definite need. Formats are tricky at the moment because the audience aren’t really engaging with formats in a huge way, they’re taking to observational documentaries more. But I hope a format will come along and they’ll take to it and it’ll fly.

Where do you see the channel in two years time?

I see the channel continuing as it is now, commissioning in all genres, hugely successful in all the genres, and hopefully continuing to have the amazing hits we’ve had in factual and documentaries. I’d like there to be another Mighty Boosh or Little Britain. It would be great if in two years time we had created a show that’s so popular BBC One want it and I am really pro shows growing and moving to bigger channels.






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