British TV executive Jay Hunt was once a formidable voice in the chorus of the U.K. TV industry. But since departing as Channel 4’s chief creative officer in 2017 to join Apple TV+ as its European originals chief, her voice, at least publicly, is seldom — if ever — heard.
It’s this sad reality, that one of the U.K.’s most brilliant thought leaders should be locked away under strict Apple media protocols, that was put in sharp relief on Tuesday evening during a rare public appearance by 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 then Vice Media boss Shane Smith during their 2016 interview at the Edinburgh TV Festival, seemed to recognize the unique nature of her circumstance, telling the audience of around 80 people at Fitzrovia’s Cavendish Convention Centre that it’s “very unusual to have a conversation like this.”
Referring to her sparring partner Frow — whose tendency to forget any semblance of media training in front of an audience is the delight of journalists everywhere — Hunt applauded the executive’s refusal “to be constrained by corporate [speak].”
“We are better for that because it’s a much better quality of conversation, so thank you for being so open,” Hunt added, somewhat ironically.
Throughout the wide-ranging, hour-long conversation, Hunt referred to herself and Frow as “disarmingly similar” in being, at one point in their careers, the industry underdogs.
Hunt started out at the BBC and even had a short stint at Channel 5 before returning to the public broadcaster and rising to become controller for flagship channel BBC One — a position in which most of the industry, she said, “is waiting for you to drop the ball.” She’s best known for her oversight of Channel 4, a reign that saw her commission such shows as “Gogglebox,” “First Dates” and “The Secret Life of Four Year Olds,” not to mention ruthlessly snatch “The Great British Bake Off” from the BBC.
Similarly, Frow had stints at the BBC, Channel 4 and Ireland’s TV3 (now Virgin Media One) before taking over as head of programming at Channel 5 in 2013, just a year before Paramount bought the free-to-air broadcaster.
While the channel once had a reputation for bottom-of-the-barrel unscripted programming — shows that, as Frow puts it, had a “pungent smell” about them — Channel 5 in the last nine years has enjoyed a massive creative overhaul under the executive, and in 2021 outperformed all other British public-service broadcasters. Most impressive, perhaps, is its expansion into the uber-competitive world of British drama with such orders as the wildly popular reboot of “All Creatures Great and Small” — a commission that would have been unthinkable on the broadcaster even five years ago.
Although Hunt was interviewing Frow, having been asked to do so by the latter exec, the pair riffed off each other beautifully, often speaking at breakneck speed over the other.
Frow detailed his freewheeling strategy with his tight-knit, long-suffering team of commissioners, revealing that he once gave them each an “ace card” and “allowed them to use that on a project that I absolutely did not want,” meaning the commissioners were allowed to go ahead and make one show they wanted without Frow’s prior approval.
“Only one person was brave enough to use it,” said Frow, later admitting the result was “so-so.” But the point, he underlined, was the creative freedom on offer at 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 scheduling, Frow — who was in 2021 elevated to the role of chief content officer for Paramount U.K. — said candidly that he needs to ensure he doesn’t “fuck over” the digital channels in his portfolio, such as global brands Comedy Central and MTV. Later, when asked how much consideration he gives to international markets, Frow said “none.”
“Going forward, [within the portfolio], content sharing is everything, but I really think it’s important we don’t take our eye off the mothership which is free-to-air…I can’t stop to worry about who we’re serving in Hong Kong and Amsterdam, I just can’t go there. I really do think about the British audience. I also believe that those big global hits all started out as local programs and then they travelled.”
While Hunt and Frow’s initial pairing may have raised question marks, it made perfect sense by the end of the session, largely due to the fact that Frow’s zero-fucks-given delivery seemed to unlock a past identity for the once-outspoken Apple executive.
Certainly, Hunt was asking rather than answering questions, but in doing so, she nonetheless revealed herself for the first time in years. “You’re a tastemaker, and that’s a privilege,” she declared to Frow at one point, before interrogating the executive about the exact alchemy behind his commissioning process. (Her own, it’s worth noting, is still unclear as Apple is yet to grant a comprehensive interview with Hunt, whose commissions include Gary Oldman spy drama “Slow Horses.”)
Later, she opened a fascinating discussion into Channel 5’s scripted success, highlighting drama as “one of those genres that is sacrosanct, because everyone says you’re not clever enough, or you don’t have enough money to do it.”
When Frow explained that he “can’t take much credit for drama” at Channel 5, which has been the remit of commissioner Sebastian Cardwell, Hunt quipped, “But you’ll take the blame.”
And Hunt should know — she’s been there. Now, almost five years since she took the reins at Apple in Europe, she’s reminding us that she’s still the smartest person in the room.