British TV executive Jay Hunt was once a formidable voice in the chorus of the UK TV industry. But since leaving as creative director of Channel 4 in 2017 to join Apple TV+ as head of European originals, his voice, at least publicly, has rarely, if ever, been heard.
It is this sad reality, that one of the UK’s most brilliant thought leaders should be locked away under strict Apple media protocols, that was thrown into sharp relief on Tuesday night in a rare public appearance. de Hunt, who interviewed another mad genius, Channel 5 boss Ben Frow, as part of a Royal Television Society event in London.
Hunt, who once eviscerated Vice Media boss Shane Smith during their 2016 interview at the Edinburgh Television Festival, seemed to recognize the unique nature of his situation, telling the audience of around 80 at the Cavendish Convention Center of Fitzrovia that it is “very unusual to have a conversation like this.
Referring to his sparring partner Frow – whose tendency to forget any semblance of media training in front of an audience is a delight for journalists around the world – Hunt applauded the executive’s refusal “to be coerced by corporations [speak].”
“We’re better at it because it’s a much better conversational quality, so thanks for being so open,” Hunt added, a little wryly.
Throughout the high-profile, hour-long chat, Hunt called herself and Frow “disarmingly similar” in that they were, at one point in their careers, industry underdogs. .
Hunt started at the BBC and even had a short stint at Channel 5 before returning to the public broadcaster and becoming controller of flagship channel BBC One – a position in which most of the industry, she said , “waiting for you to drop the ball.” She is best known for her surveillance of Channel 4, a reign that has seen her command shows such as “Gogglebox”, “First Dates” and “The Secret Life of Four Year Olds”, not to mention ruthlessly snatching “The Great British Bake Off”. from the BBC.
Similarly, Frow worked at the BBC, Channel 4 and TV3 in Ireland (now Virgin Media One) before taking over as Channel 5’s programming helm in 2013, just a year before Paramount bought the free diffuser.
While the channel once had a reputation for low-end unscripted programming – shows that, as Frow puts it, had a “pungent smell” about them – Channel 5 over the past nine years has benefited from a massive creative overhaul under the executive, and in 2021 surpassed all other UK public service broadcasters. Most impressive, perhaps, is its expansion into the ultra-competitive world of British drama with commissions such as the hugely popular reboot of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ – a commission that would have been unthinkable for the broadcaster a while ago. even five years.
Although Hunt interviewed Frow, after being asked to do so by the latter executive, the pair riffed off beautifully, often talking at breakneck speed over each other.
Frow detailed his freewheeling strategy with his team of tight-knit and tough curators, revealing that he once gave them each an “ace card” and “allowed them to use it on a project that I don’t absolutely didn’t want”, meaning the commissioners were allowed to go ahead and do any show they wanted without Frow’s prior approval.
“Only one person was brave enough to use it,” Frow said, later admitting the result was “average.” But the point, he stressed, was the creative freedom offered by Channel 5.
“I want them to prove me wrong, but it’s important when you’re clear about who you are that you’re forced out of your comfort zone,” Frow said.
Elsewhere, while discussing the dark art of programming, Frow – who was elevated in 2021 to chief content officer for Paramount UK – candidly said he had to make sure he didn’t ‘fuck’ digital channels in its portfolio, such as global brands Comedy Central and MTV. Later, when asked what consideration he gave to international markets, Frow replied “none”.
” Ahead, [within the portfolio], content sharing is paramount, but I really think it’s important that we don’t take our eyes off the mothership which is free… I can’t stop worrying about who we serve in Hong Kong and Amsterdam, I just can’t go there. I really think about the British public. I also believe that these big global hits all started as local programs and then they traveled.
While Hunt and Frow’s initial pairing may have raised some question marks, it made perfect sense by the end of the session, largely because Frow’s zero fucking delivery seemed to unlock a past identity for him. once outspoken Apple executive.
Granted, Hunt was asking questions rather than answering, but in doing so, she nonetheless revealed herself for the first time in years. “You’re a tastemaker, and that’s a privilege,” she told Frow at one point, before asking the executive about the exact chemistry behind her commissioning process. (It should be noted that his is still unclear because Apple has yet to give a full interview to Hunt, whose commissions include Gary Oldman’s spy drama “Slow Horses.”)
She later opened up a fascinating discussion of Channel 5’s scripted success, pointing out that drama was “one of those genres that’s sacrosanct, because everyone says you’re not smart enough or that you don’t have enough money to do it”.
When Frow explained he “can’t take much credit for the drama” on Channel 5, which reports to Commissioner Sebastian Cardwell, Hunt joked: “But you will take responsibility for it.”
And Hunt should know — she’s been there. Now, nearly five years after taking the reins of Apple in Europe, she reminds us that she’s still the smartest person in the room.