Jana Bennett, who has died aged 66 of brain cancer, was the first woman appointed as director of television at the BBC, and its first director of vision, with responsibility for the corporation’s entire output, across TV, online content and interactive technology.
Her transformative impact on British and, later, American television affected not just what we watch but how we watch it. Leading the transition into the digital and on-demand world, she oversaw the launch of BBC Three, BBC Four, CBeebies and CBBC as well as the groundbreaking iPlayer.
Despite her position as one of the BBC’s most senior executives, Jana was not a “suit”. She was a self-effacing creative enabler who positively encouraged diversity of thought and other people’s ideas.
She said: “There may be a desire to own everything, but you must not stop the bus and stand in the way of a good idea … The ecology is less rich if you shape everything in your own image.” It was this approach that led to so many successful programmes during her nine years at the helm of BBC Television, ranging from The Thick of It and Planet Earth to Strictly Come Dancing and Sherlock.
Jana and I joined the BBC on the same day in October 1979 as news trainees, and became lifelong friends. Once at the corporation, Jana leap-frogged her way up the ladder and by the age of 27 was an editor on Newsnight.
In an unusual move, in 1988 she switched from news and current affairs to the science department, where she developed and launched Antenna, a new science magazine show for BBC Two, applying her journalistic skills and intellectual rigour to make complex scientific stories accessible to a mainstream audience.
She quickly rose to become the first female editor of the BBC Two science documentary series Horizon in 1990 and then the first female head of BBC Science in 1994.
Her deputy, Susan Spindler, said the department was in the doldrums when Jana took over. “It was as if Jana came in and opened the windows and doors. The department became more sophisticated, more eclectic and a very creative, vibrant place to be. It was a honey pot for talented documentary makers.”
Jana drove the reinvention of science output with landmark series such as Walking with Dinosaurs and The Human Body, drawing big audiences to the genre. Her impact was such that she was made OBE for services to science broadcasting in 2000.
As well as being an inspiration to many women at the BBC, Jana was a powerful advocate for diversity. In 2010, as director of vision, she brought Pat Younge, then head of a US cable network , back to the UK to run BBC in-house production. He said: “She was one of the women from our generation who broke the glass ceiling in television, and she was a big supporter of diversity. She knew some of the challenges I faced coming through as a black man because she had faced similar ones as a woman, a few years before.”
For three years from 1999, Jana went to the US (where she had spent her early years) to run the Learning Channel (TLC) for Discovery, even though it meant moving her family to Maryland. Her husband, Richard Clemmow, whom she had married in 1996, gave up his role as head of BBC daily news programmes to support Jana’s career and become an independent producer.
Having seen the power of factual entertainment to attract audiences, Jana introduced successful formats such as Changing Rooms and What Not to Wear to TLC, pushing it into the Top 10 of cable channels in the US before returning in 2002 to take the role of BBC director of television.
Born in Cooperstown, New York state, to Elizabeth (nee Cushing) and Gordon Bennett, an English professor, Jana was the middle of five sisters. After the family moved to the UK when Jana was 14, settling in the village of Felpham outside Bognor Regis, East Sussex, she quickly established herself at the local comprehensive and became school captain, a role she embraced in her characteristically unconventional way.
Hearing that the director Ken Russell was looking for extras to appear in the 1975 film Tommy, she took several students out of school for a few days to take part. (They featured in the Pinball Wizard scene, waving huge Tommy banners in support of the pinball champion.) When she was told off by the headteacher, Jana argued that some experiences were more important than being in the classroom. She learned early to ask for forgiveness rather than permission as well as to seize every opportunity that came her way.
Jana was also a talented musician and singer. While she was studying politics, philosophy and economics at St Anne’s College, Oxford University (1974-77), her musical ability was spotted by a student in a neighbouring college, Tony Blair, who co-opted her into his band as a singer.
After a master’s in international relations from the London School of Economics, where she also co-edited the journal Millennium, she joined the BBC.
Jana’s teams at the corporation found her stimulating and refreshing, as she was never afraid to speak truth to power, which could lead her into tussles with the BBC Trust: “I was pretty independent minded … possibly to my detriment at times.”
Following a reorganisation of her final role there as president of BBC Worldwide Networks and Global iPlayer, the corporation’s commercial arm, she stepped down to take up a job back in the US. At the time, Jana told Broadcast magazine: “The public wouldn’t be well served by a purely obedient public servant. In a creative industry, I’ve always had respect for people who won’t take no for an answer.”
Moving to New York in 2013, she launched the FYI network for A+E Networks. There, she was the first commissioner to spot the potential of Married at First Sight outside Denmark, where it originally aired. She commissioned the US version, which has been running for 14 seasons. In 2015 she was made president of A+E Networks’ History channel.
It was characteristic of Jana that after her diagnosis of glioblastoma multiforme in May 2019, she initially told very few people, declaring that she did not want the time she had left “to be an extended wake”. Instead, she threw herself into her non-executive roles on the board of the Washington-based Pew Research Centre, the British Library and the Headlong theatre while also championing the UK launch of the charity Our Brain Bank, to support others suffering from glioblastoma and boost research into the disease.
Jana enjoyed mountaineering and skiing with her family, and travelling widely. She was well on her way to achieving her goal of visiting 100 countries.
She is survived by Richard and by their daughter, Alexandra, and their son, Skomer.