Jana Bennett: Influential American-born Executive at BBC Television

From a New York Times obit by Katharine Q. Seelye headlined “Jana Bennett, Former Director of BBC Television, Dies at 66”:

Jana Bennett, an influential American-born broadcast executive and program-maker at the British Broadcasting Corporation who helped redefine the presentation of science on television, died at her home in Oxfordshire, England.

Ms. Bennett began her more than three-decade career at the BBC in 1979 as a news trainee and rose to become director of BBC Television. Among the first generation of women to break into the corporation’s inner sanctum of creative leadership, she assumed responsibility for its domestic and most of its international television networks as well as its entire production machine.

Under her tenure, the BBC introduced several new formats and programs, including “Sherlock,” “Planet Earth,” “Strictly Come Dancing,” “The Apprentice” and a modernized “Doctor Who,” as well as new digital channels and, crucially, the global BBC iPlayer, for on-demand viewing.

“She nurtured a highly creative period in the BBC’s history across drama, entertainment, comedy and factual,” Richard Sambrook, a British journalist and former director of news at the BBC, said.

“She understood audiences and the need for innovation and combined a strategic vision with personable talent management and team management,” he said.

Before rising to the top rungs of the company, she essentially reinvented science programming in the late 1980s and ’90s. She was the executive producer of “Horizon,” the network’s science documentary series, which provided much of the content for the PBS program “Nova,” and in 1994 she became head of science for BBC Television, the first woman in that role.

Under her leadership, the department won numerous awards for its documentary series, the most acclaimed of which were “The Human Body” (1998) and “Walking with Dinosaurs” (1999). Both made extensive use of computer generated imagery. She was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire in 2000 for services to science broadcasting and public communication of science.

“She raised the stakes everywhere, not just in the U.K. but in the U.S. and around the world,” Mark Thompson, a former director general of the BBC and former chief executive of The New York Times, said.

In 2006, Ms. Bennett was put in charge of the newly created BBC Vision, which the company said was the largest multimedia, commissioning and broadcast group of its kind in the world.

“The move cements her position as the most powerful woman in the BBC, if not the television industry,” The Guardian wrote.

Ms. Bennett was once seen as a likely contender for the BBC’s top job of director general. But, according to The Guardian, her stock fell after she was criticized for showing “a lack of curiosity” in getting to the bottom of the so-called Crowngate kerfuffle in 2007, when the BBC aired misleading footage of Queen Elizabeth II supposedly storming out of a photo session with the celebrity American photographer Annie Leibovitz; in fact, the film clips were shown out of sequence and the Queen was in good humor. The BBC was forced to apologize to Buckingham Palace, and high-level resignations ensued.

Ms. Bennett managed to stay on. But when the BBC underwent a companywide reorganization in 2012, she left and moved to New York, where she was named president of the Biography Channel and Lifetime Movie Network (later rebranded as the FYI network) for A&E Networks. She was named president and general manager of A&E Networks’s History Channel in 2015. She stepped down in 2017.

Jana Eve Bennett was born in Cooperstown, N.Y. Her father, Gordon Bennett, was a university professor. Her mother, Elizabeth (Cushing) Bennett, was a teacher, librarian and college admissions officer.

As a teacher earning a doctorate, Mr. Bennett moved the family often. Jana and her four sisters spent time in Kansas, Minnesota and New Hampshire before the family moved to England and settled in East Sussex, when Jana was 13.

She went to St. Anne’s College, Oxford University, and graduated in 1977 with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics. (An amateur singer, she was recruited to join a band by another Oxford student and a future prime minister, Tony Blair.) She earned her master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics in 1978. The following year, she joined the BBC as a news trainee.

Her early journalistic work included news documentaries, including “The Disappeared: Voices from a Secret War,” about the repressive military regime in Argentina in the late 1970s and 1980s. She and John Simpson, a fellow BBC journalist, also wrote a book, “The Disappeared and the Mothers of the Plaza” (1986), which included firsthand accounts by mothers to find the thousands of children whom the Argentine regime had “disappeared.”

While working on the BBC’s Newsnight program, Ms. Bennett met Richard Clemmow, an editor and executive at the BBC. They married in 1995….

Ms. Bennett left the BBC in 1999 and became head of TLC for Discovery in Washington, D.C. There, she introduced reality dramas and interior design programs, some of them based on popular British formats, which boosted not only ratings but also revenues.

She returned to the BBC in 2002, when she was named director of television.

After her diagnosis in May 2019, Ms. Bennett initially told few people of her illness because she wanted to avoid “an extended wake,” her longtime friend and BBC colleague Lorraine Heggessey wrote on Tuesday in The Guardian.

She threw herself into her work on the boards of the British Library and the Headlong Theater Company. She went publicabout her illness in December 2019, when she joined a nonprofit group, OurBrainBank, an app that allows people with glioblastoma to consult doctors around the world and that promotes research into the disease.

Katharine Q. “Kit” Seelye is a New York Times obituary writer. She was previously the paper’s New England bureau chief. She worked in The Times’s Washington bureau for 12 years, has covered six presidential campaigns and pioneered The Times’s online coverage of politics.


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