LONDON — Who exactly is Jay Hunt? That was the question a lot of U.K. media commentators were asking themselves when news broke Dec. 3 that Hunt is to be the new controller of BBC1.
Running what remains Blighty’s most watched channel and the pubcaster’s flagship service is a uniquely pressured job that demands a flair for public relations as well as a brilliant editorial mind.
As the last incumbent, Peter Fincham, forced to resign over faked footage trailing a docu about the British monarch, found out the hard way, the gig additionally requires acute political antennae and keen diplomatic skills.
Hunt, a 40-year-old Cambridge graduate, is a low-profile British webhead who spent her childhood in Australia.
Those who know her say she is a gifted commissioner who is also good with talent, another key requirement for whoever leads BBC1.
But Hunt only landed her first really big job, as director of programs at commercial U.K. broadcaster Five, earlier this year.
Until then she had spent her entire career at the BBC working her way up from researcher on “Breakfast News” to editing the BBC1 “One O’Clock News” and “Six O’Clock News” — key shows for the Corp. — before being handed the brief to reinvent daytime on both BBC1 and 2.
The daytime makeover involved a lot of factual entertainment — shows like “Great British Menu” and “Extreme Dreams” — plus a smattering of drama.
Despite this high-achieving BBC career, Hunt did not give her first interview to a media scribe until last month — in her role as the new program supremo at Five, a job she began in September.
At the time she categorically ruled out a swift return to the Corp. as BBC1 controller.
“Jay is a BBC native who straddles both news and entertainment. That gives the BBC confidence,” says Peter Bennett-Jones, chair of leading U.K. shingle Tiger Aspect, one of BBC1’s biggest suppliers.
“Running BBC1 contains an element of the poisoned chalice and the current BBC agenda makes it a very difficult job. It’s a difficult job to leave gracefully,” he adds. “But I think she will rise to the challenge.”
Hunt will need to. After Fincham’s ignominious exit, and with Television Centre still recovering from issues involving viewer deception, the BBC cannot afford to have another occupant of the BBC1 hot seat leave under a cloud.
Editorially Fincham’s two and a half year stint as BBC1 controller is widely perceived as a big success. He presided over key shows such as the high concept drama “Life on Mars,” the inventive costume saga “Bleak House,” reality talent skein “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” and the universally feted natural history series “Planet Earth,” not, of course, forgetting Saturday night hits “Doctor Who” and “Strictly Come Dancing.”
What is sometimes forgotten is that Fincham inherited many of these shows from his predecessor, Lorraine Heggessey, who was fortunate to take over BBC1 when the Corp. was flush with coin.
That is a luxury that Hunt will not have at the cash-strapped Beeb.
Commissioning budgets are being cut by 10% as the Corp. concentrates on “bigger, better, fewer” shows. In other words, programs that create a noise.
As head of daytime at the BBC, Hunt is familiar with making a little go a long way. “Making quality television on relatively small budgets” is one of her skills, she told the Guardian in that sole interview.
Even so, BBC1’s budget is hardly small — around $2 billion.
But she will need to spend the money wisely, especially as the channel’s main rival, ITV1, is showing signs of a revival — and, ironically, Five poached one of BBC1’s banker shows, the FremantleMedia teen soap “Neighbours.”
The end of “Neighbours” — Five starts screening the soap early next year — as a backbone of the BBC1 schedule creates a big hole.
On the plus side, Hunt’s background as a highly experienced BBC journo (she has held senior roles on flagship public affairs shows “Newsnight” and Panorama”) should prevent her from making any Peter Fincham-style gaffes.