Strong Root grows at BBC2

Controller steers pubcaster towards baby boomers

LONDON — Behind the success of “The Weakest Link,” British TV’s latest Stateside sensation, stand two feisty females, both bespectacled, diminutive and fond of dark, tailored suits and intimidating male colleagues.

The show’s stony-faced host, Anne Robinson, needs no fanfare. Jane Root, on the other hand, remains anonymous to viewers both sides of the Atlantic.

But as controller of pubcaster BBC2, the web that launched the quizzer in Blighty last summer, she put Robinson and her much-feted vehicle in the spotlight.

“I didn’t create the show,” says the not-normally modest Root, “but I was convinced we could do something with a more adult, more sophisticated take weekdays at 5 p.m.”

Grinning behind her trademark optics, she adds: “I had a hunch it would be a hit, but no one predicted it would be this big. I think ‘The Weakest Link’ has those classic BBC2 values of edginess, toughness and meanness.”

Not unlike Root herself? Her ability to persuade BBC powerbrokers to give her one of the most coveted jobs in the organization speaks volumes for her determination.

Root is the first female to run a BBC television network. Yet her blue-collar background and previous career as co-founder of U.K. independent Wall to Wall singles her out as an outsider in BBC hierarchy.

Her toughness and hands-on approach have earned her many admirers, but few friends. Even detractors acknowledge that Root is prepared to take creative risks and now runs a web that, following a period in the doldrums, is back in form with ratings at a four-year high.

Much of this success is down to “The Weakest Link.” The show’s populism may seem to have little in common with the BBC2’s left-field mix. But the web, pitched at a more discerning audience than mainstream sister BBC1, thrives on eclecticism.

Root, erstwhile ’70s radical and lecturer in film, has bucked the trend for aiming at under-35s, steering BBC2 toward the baby boomers who now have grown-up children of their own. Recent hits have included acclaimed docus “The Rise and Sprawl of the Middle Classes,” “Walk on by: The Story of Popular Song” and mid-life crisis comedy “Happiness.”

This spring Root was sent on a five-week management course at the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia, signaling that further promotion may be on the cards.

Her stint left her convinced that despite the American success of European formats such as “The Weakest Link,” “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Survivor,” Hollywood has much to teach Britain’s television community.

“The American concept of a showrunner is one we could well do with over here,” reckons Root. “I also love the way American TV invests in multi-episodic, high-concept drama and comedy. They can teach us a lot about storytelling techniques and how to put together multi-character shows.”

So would Root like to follow Robinson across the Atlantic and work in America? “I’d love to. It might be tough over there but excellence is the same everywhere. Having said that I’m still enjoying running BBC2 so I am not really thinking about my next job. My immediate aim is to do more big things here.”