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08 January 2017

In the Spotlight… Heather Jones, A+E Networks

Last year WFTV partnered with A+E Networks for the inaugural Lifetime Shorts Competition, part of the network’s Broad Focus initiative which aims to find, develop and mentor female talent in the entertainment industry. The competition was the brainchild of Heather Jones, A+E Networks UK’s General Manager and Senior Vice President of Content and Creative. WFTV CEO Kate Kinninmont sat down with Heather to discover how she got to where she is today, and why landing her daughter’s classmates in detention signalled a key moment in her career!

KATE:    How did you get into TV?     

HEATHER:    I always knew that what I wanted to do was to work in television. I did a degree in drama at Aberystwyth University and I specialised in television as part of that.  Then when I left, in the dark days of ’91, all I wanted to do was to get on the graduate training scheme at the BBC but I didn’t even get an interview, so eventually I headed off to France to work at the opening of Euro Disney. I thought ‘I’ll stay there, maybe travel a bit and come back when the economic climate is a bit better in the UK.’ But through my Disney contacts I ended up getting a job working in TV as a researcher at Buena Vista productions, making the network shows like Disney Adventures and Disney Club. I was cutting my teeth in production: running around writing scripts, working with children’s TV presenters, sorting props, helping with rough-cuts and all the other things that you do as a researcher.  It was a fantastic training ground to learn about programme-making and the industry as a whole.


KATE:    Your last few jobs have all been very much management. How did you find that transition?

HEATHER:    I thought all I ever wanted to do was production and I absolutely loved it. I’d gone from Disney, where I was making children’s shows, into production on youth shows at a cable network called Trouble where I began as an assistant producer, and later started directing, then producing and exec producing. They were mostly location-based shows and I was really happy doing that, covering a wide range of subjects. Then Lisa Opie, who was running the network at the time, was promoted and she called me in one day and said: ‘Hey, you seem to have a really good feel for the channel brand and you appear to have good people skills. Would you be interested in running the network?’ And my first response was ‘No. Why would I ever want to do that? I love making programmes.’ And she said ‘Why don’t you have a think about it?’ So I spoke to a few friends who all said ‘Try it. Just try it for six months. You never know, you might like it.’ They also reminded me of how hard it was being freelance.

And so I went into it expecting to find it challenging but not necessarily rewarding and something that I would do for a few months, have on my CV and move on. It was quite a sudden transition, completely unplanned.  In retrospect, I think it was because I wasn’t gung ho on being a great senior executive, that I was probably a bit more relaxed about it. And clearly having been a producer I came to it with a very editorial view so I was very focussed on making sure that the programmes were right, that the schedules worked, and the promos were effective. I was really, really focussed on the viewers’ experience.  If you look at everything through that lens, it gives you a good base to start with. And, of course, I was surrounded by other strong women. At the time, Lis Howell was heading up Flextech, Lisa Opie was my line manager, and the other woman who was really helpful to me in that role was Emma Tennant, who was running Living at the time.

When I first got the job I was one week away from my very first trip to MIPCOM in Cannes and I really had no idea what I was doing running a network. And Emma just said to me one day: ’Has your assistant put the meetings in your diary for Cannes?’ So she took me under her wing and introduced me to lots of really useful people. I was lucky to benefit from working with other women who were very supportive and identified where my gaps might be and really helped me through. I remember Lisa saying to me: ‘Never, ever bring me just a problem. Bring me a challenge with three proposed solutions, one of which is your preferred.’  And that’s a discipline I’ve always maintained and something that I make sure I convey to any team I work with. I think there were some really explicit bits of guidance and mentoring that I received early on that helped me make that transition from production to broadcasting. And I think a combination of all that great advice along with my editorial experience was what got me through.

KATE:     Well, you’ve come through. In fact, your job title sounds quite scary really: General Manager UK and Senior Vice President Content and Creative, A+E Networks UK. What is a typical day? 

Blaze, A+E Networks UK’s first free-to-air TV channel which launched in 2016.

HEATHER:    Oh my God, I don’t think I have a typical day. Every day is so different and that’s probably why I love it. The General Manager of the UK means that I’m responsible for the Profit and Loss for the five UK channels which are History, H2, Crime and Investigation, Lifetime and Blaze. That means I have to be across all the revenue coming in as well as all the costs going out. I have to make sure I’m driving whatever the strategy is for how we talk about our channels with our key platforms such as Sky or Virgin or BT, but I also have to make sure that I’m across our adsales revenues via our Sky media relationship. I think having the ownership of the revenue as well as the cost-base forces me to be much more commercially aware. I really like that because for me it’s all very well having a beautiful channel but if you’re running at a loss nobody’s winning because there’s no sustainability there. Whether that’s for the independent production companies you’re commissioning or whether it be your parent company. I really enjoy looking at everything as part of that bigger picture of what is delivering in terms of overall profitability.

Any day will probably have at least one or two meetings that are very commercially focussed: looking at our commercial impact performance, a conference call with a platform or a meeting with a content financing business. But then with the other aspect, with the business of content creation, I’m focussed on what our brands look and feel like, how the programming is working and how we best sell our shows to the viewers. Any one day we’ll have at least three or four meetings very much focussed on making sure that our biggest channels and our biggest brands are working as hard as they possibly can and figuring out how we can make them even better, whilst also ensuring that our lowest performing channels or shows are given the support they need to really turbo charge them. I also try to keep as even a balance as I can between the ‘product’, being the programming, and how we talk about that – so that the promos, the marketing and the digital media all work together to make as much noise as possible.

Then on top of this, once you’re at a more senior level in a business, you also have a larger, corporate responsibility.  That means preparing papers for the next board meeting (A+E Networks UK is a 50/50 joint venture between Sky and A+E in the US), looking at team structures, company policies, culture and office environment and all those other things that come with being senior management.  I suppose I see myself as wearing three different hats: the corporate hat, the commercial hat and then the content creative hat.

KATE:    You helped to launch Lifetime in the UK, in South Africa and Poland. What did that involve?

HEATHER:    When I was first hired back in July of 2013 they already had the deal with Sky to launch Lifetime, so I often refer to the launch of Lifetime in the UK as my adoptive baby.  It’s not like Blaze – where I was part of the process that justified why it should exist and then drove its content, branding and positioning right from the beginning. With Lifetime, by the time I came in, all of the on-air look was in production and all the programmes had been acquired or commissioned.   So I looked at this pretty well formed thing and went ‘Okay, this looks good – we’ve just got to get this out the gate as effectively as we can’. One issue with Lifetime is that it’s at a lower EPG position than a lot of its competitors. Sitting at 156 means that although people will come to it because it has great content, it doesn’t get the passing traffic that benefit some of its competitors.

Jennifer Ellison (centre), Dance Mums UK.

And the learning process for me from that was you can have great programmes that are must-see TV and fit really comfortably in your schedule, but if they don’t punch above their weight and generate lots of publicity, you’re not going to get people down to your channel to watch them. We get pitched a lot of shows that would fit beautifully within the channel but they’re not going to work hard enough to get people to tune in. So the question for me, once we got Lifetime up and running, was about how do we make it cut through? How do we make it more distinctive? How can we make sure that this brand feels very different from Sky Living and TLC? Both of these are brilliant, female skewed channels, but Lifetime has to feel like it’s in clear blue water between them.  So what I’ve been really focussed on is ‘What is Lifetime’s USP?’

I think if we take Sky Living, that channel is now all about brilliant American scripted drama, particularly good procedural drama. It’s quite different to what it was five years ago and it does what it does really well. TLC has a really clear brand and some great content and I would say feels more like a ‘guilty pleasure’ with a tabloid tone. With Lifetime, I think we’ve really worked hard to carve out our niche as a very celebratory, female-leaning network that has the best of aspirational reality. It’s about celebrating strong women and their achievements and is very much aimed at women in their 30’s probably with young kids.  And then it’s about making sure that the content and the way that we talk about that content is as noisy as possible.

We’re also moving away from multiple, lower cost-per-hour commissions and into fewer series with a higher cost-per-hour to ensure that that they are really going to cut through. The first one that we did that with was Dance Mums UK, taking Dance Moms – our highest rated American show – and making a local version of that with British talent in the form of Jennifer Ellison. Jennifer was the world champion of several disciples of dance for many years running, long before she went into acting. She’s an outstanding performer and teacher. Marrying her with our most successful format worked brilliantly for us and we commissioned two seasons of Dance Mums UK that really put Lifetime on the map as a channel to watch. Anecdotally, my daughter talks about my first Lifetime commission as being the biggest cause of detentions in her secondary school, because, apparently, girls would go into the toilets to watch clips of Dance Mums UK on their phone when they should have been in lessons!

As a mum, I feel slightly conflicted about that: I don’t agree with children skipping school but, if they are going to skip school, at least it’s to watch one of my shows!

KATE:    That’s brilliant.  

HEATHER:    It confirmed for me that it was talk-about telly that young people wanted to watch and we all know about the challenge of getting young people to watch linear television. Of course, they were watching on their phones but they were engaged and then they were going home to watch the full long form show on TV. That said to me that we were getting something right and so, hot on the heels of that, we commissioned Britain’s Next Top Model. We were in a meeting talking about what are the shows that people love and how can we do something similar and we got talking about modelling. Living had stopped making Top Model and no one else had a really hot modelling concept. Obviously Project Runway is a big fashion-based show for Lifetime in the US but we felt we would struggle to launch Project Runway on its own without a couple of additional titles. And then it just occurred to me that the obvious answer was staring us in the face. Instead of trying to do something like Britain’s Next Top Model why shouldn’t we just pick up the original format?  A series of fortuitous events meant that we were able to commission the brand new series for Lifetime; it turned out to be the biggest UK commission that we’ve ever had on any A+E network in the UK. We quickly commissioned another run, and we are just about to take delivery of some of the rough cuts of the second season, which we’ll launch in March.


KATE:    You’re also very interested in comedy aren’t you? 

HEATHER:    I am. I used to run Paramount Comedy, which actually was my first job as a channel MD. I’d always been very much purely editorial until that point. And then I took over as managing director of Paramount Comedy before it became Comedy Central, and hence I’ve worked very closely with a number of comedians and their agents. Frankly, I was always disappointed by how male the stand up comedy environment was. Sketch comedy has always had a good smattering of female talent, but when you look at the stand-up circuit and career path, it’s quite an alien environment for women. It can be quite intimidating. So how do we change that? I want Lifetime to provide a broader platform. We are tentatively moving into it by doing some comedy shorts, initially with some stand up comedians. We’ve just done a series of shorts with Wendy Wason, who is brilliant.  We’re also hoping that female comedy will work in our non-linear digital environment as well.

Lifetime in the US are already doing similar things.  The environment at Lifetime in the US is now known as the ‘fempire’, which is about supporting women’s strengths and talents. We’re about to roll out the same strategy, so you’ll start to see the ‘fempire’ positioning as something that Lifetime UK really gets behind. And I think having female comedians as part of that story is very powerful, so it’s something I hope to further expand in the future.

KATE:    WFTV has just partnered with you on a short film initiative, looking for new female talent. What gave you the idea for that?

Heather Jones, Michelle Collins and Kate Kinninmont pictured with the winners of the LIfetime Short Film Competition.

HEATHER:    It came originally from an initiative called Broad Focus which fits within the ‘fempire’ umbrella. Broad Focus aims to showcase women on screen but primarily intends to support women behind the camera. Broad Focus began as an American idea to support female producers, writers and directors – basically any of the key TV and film production talent. Talking to Lifetime US, I could see it was a really strong initiative and I began to think about what we could do in the UK. Obviously, we don’t commission anywhere near as much content as they do in the US. They commission anything up to 50 TV movies a year as well as scripted dramas and unscripted series. We commission around 20 hours of unscripted content in the UK each year, so our options are far more limited.  We were trying to work out how we could be meaningful in this arena and I got this particular idea from judging a short film competition a few years ago and being surprised by how good the films were.

The Lifetime short film competition was certainly an experiment: we didn’t know what the reaction was going to be.  Kate – you really got behind it with Women in Film and Television and we did as big a call to action as we could, both on our linear TV channels but also online. I must say WFTV have just been wonderful throughout the whole process. Curzon supported us too. And we tried to be as open as possible, to say the films can be for anybody and about any subject as long as they’re less than five minutes long. And the reason we kept it at five minutes is so that we could make sure we gave them the right amount of exposure in prime-time on our linear TV channel. And I’m sure, Kate, you were just as delighted as we were at the quality of the entrants, which were extraordinary. Our seven wining films just blew everybody away. The people who came to the screening at the Curzon last month were both speechless and incredibly moved by the quality and the power of the storytelling. It was a tremendous success and I hope it’s the beginning of a continued partnership with WFTV. It’s certainly boosted our commitment to encourage and support women filmmakers.


KATE: As a top TV executive who is also a mother, how do you think our industry is progressing in its employment of women?   

HEATHER:    There is still a long way to go to achieve equality in any industry but I think the TV industry in a lot of areas is more equal than many. In commissioning, for example, there are a lot of senior women. But once you get on set, particularly for movies and for high-end TV, you are surrounded by men. That can be very intimidating and we need to figure out how we break that down. And the other place where it’s not equal – where it’s far from equal – is in the boardroom. I still believe that the only way to achieve boardroom equality is through some kind of mandated quota system which, of course, many countries are introducing.  I frequently find myself the only woman around a table full of men, or certainly very much in the minority. I do believe that women bring a different perspective to business and even though men may instinctively be more cutthroat, or commercial – whatever you want to call it – what we bring to the table is very, very important. I genuinely believe that businesses would prosper if there were to be a more equal balance within the boardroom. So this is still an issue for senior women in business.

I think when you look at women in television, at least when you look at the broadcasting side of things, it’s much more equal. There are some amazing female role models who are incredibly successful and spectacularly talented, who are doing some very inspiring things. On the broadcasting side we’re really in a good place.

But you asked about being a working mum.  My angle on this is that I believe that I’ve got to where I am because I’m a mother, not in spite of the fact that I’m a mother. And I say that because I had my first child quite early in my career, soon after I started working in broadcasting.  And it taught me – forced me actually – to prioritise. It also gave me enormous perspective on everything I was doing.

If you can focus on the big things that are really going to make a difference, that’s the stuff that is most rewarding and most fun. And I believe that I can do that because I’m a mother, because I have to prioritise. I don’t have time to do everything. When it comes to work-life balance, I have to admit that I don’t have all the answers. I work very long hours. I travel a lot, so I just try and make sure that the time I do have at home I really make count.  I have the advantage that I’ve got to a level in my career whereby we can afford for only one of us to work. My husband is at home and looks after the children. I know that’s not an option for everybody and it certainly wasn’t an option for me until a few years ago. It is hard being a working mum if your partner is also working and I have no answer to that other than that you just have to be committed. If you really love it you have to be committed to making it work. Despite the problems, I still believe you can be a great mother even if you’re not there all the time.

It’s vital to me to find my work fulfilling because otherwise I would become a full-time mum and my husband would go back to his TV production work. But I absolutely love what I do and feel passionately about it when I come into work every day. I try to do the stuff that I consider is game-changing for our channels and our brands, so that it feels like I’m making a difference.


WFTV will be hosting a screening of the seven winning films from the Lifetime Short Film Competition on Tuesday 31st January. Click here to book a seat!