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We are right to be cynical about Danny Cohen's BBC exit

14 Oct 2015  |  Raymond Snoddy 
We are right to be cynical about Danny Cohen's BBC exit

Whatever the reason for the shock departure of the BBC's director of TV - and there could be many - it brings to attention a much bigger danger facing the Corporation.

The PR-brokered story about Danny Cohen's unexpected departure as the BBC's director of television could be entirely true.

He is not the first to seek new challenges, in the search for the next big thing - something that is often found in the US and that usually comes with an eye-watering salary.

Everyone from Michael Grade to Michael Jackson has trodden that path, usually with mixed results.

Anticipating the obvious chatter, Cohen and his advisors concocted the rebuttal in advance: "I think people will try and read BBC internal complex things into it but it's really straightforward - I have had a wonderful time here for eight years and I'm just ready for the next thing."

Indeed they will, although that explanation could be a simple statement of fact.

There were, however, as the Daily Mail gleefully points out, a couple of clouds on Cohen's horizon.

He orchestrated "the luvvie letter" signed by BBC stars in support of the Corporation even though some later admitted they had not even read it.

Cue embarrassment and political controversy.

It is also a fact that one of the BBC's greatest financial assets, the oafish Jeremy Clarkson, slipped through the Corporation's fingers during his watch. Clarkson was a serious problem to be managed and this did not happen, although perhaps there wasn't a solution to an unpredictable problem like Clarkson.

The "internal complex things" continue on into Cohen's chances of becoming the next director-general of the BBC after Lord Hall.

Once this seemed likely because of his creative reputation as a commissioner of programmes such as Poldark, Happy Valley and Call The Midwife.

This seems much less likely now because of the aforementioned clouds on his horizon and his perceived natural leftist political instincts in what is likely to be a Tory decade.

Why indeed not look for new challenges or "things" when there are piles of gold out there in the hands of the new age television players from Netflix to Amazon and Google to Apple.

You wouldn't even have to enter the world of the search engines and social media to strike it rich. Running a large independent television production company in the US would run to millions as would taking charge of ITV for Liberty Global if such a takeover ever materialises.

The trouble with the looking for new challenges explanation is that it is a cliché used routinely by those who have run out of road even if they haven't actually been shown the door.

But let's set aside the usual media cynicism for a moment and accept the Cohen view of things at their face value as he requested.

In a way that is worse because it implies that after a glittering career at the BBC that culminated in a largely successful stint as director of television that is no longer challenge enough - he's off.

It is more than a little possible that Cohen has looked over the parapet and didn't like what he saw. He might even be privy to the cuts that are to come and the services that will have to be closed in the face of a Government that does not wish the BBC well.

As he is a very smart cookie, indeed he will be very aware that despite the bold talk about reinvention for the digital age coming out of the organisation, the move of BBC 3 online will be a disaster. It will sink without trace.

The likelihood is that the way that BBC production will be structured in future will result in the Corporation owning less intellectual property in 'its' shows."

He has all the numbers and knows very well that the vast majority of on-demand viewing comes from catching up with conventional television programmes that have established their reputation and importance by being broadcast rather than slipped out online. The dial may be moving modestly in the direction of genuine on-demand but its very modest so far.

Danny Cohen must know better than most what sort of miserable time the BBC is facing and may have decided to quit when he is ahead, particularly when multi-billion suitors are coming to call - the sort who can make programme makers' dreams come true.

Lord Michael Dobbs, creator of House of Cards, at this year's IBC conference in Amsterdam explained how by the end of the original series he had fallen out with the BBC and even taken his name off the credits.

By contrast he had loved working with Netflix who had offered complete creative freedom.

The Cohen departure may be about one person's story and ambition. The danger is that it could turn into a well trod exit route for those who see greater opportunities elsewhere, or those who have no choice in their departure.

The impending departure of Robert Peston may also be more about personal ambition and challenge than about anything happening within the BBC.

It is another high profile departure by someone who is voluntarily choosing a television news programme with around a third the audience of its BBC equivalent, no 24-hour television news channel and certainly no Today programme, World at One or PM on Radio 4.

How long will his Sunday interview programme last on ITV if the audience is tiny and the advertising fails to turn up?

Peston, with or without a tie, has chosen voluntarily to diminish greatly his impact rather than stay at the BBC and it's unlikely to have been mainly about the money.

They could be early harbingers of things to come and the losses could involve programmes as well as personalities.

The likelihood is that the way that BBC production will be structured in future will result in the Corporation owning less intellectual property in 'its' shows.

A BBC show is a surprising hit and really takes off and then gets immediately snapped up by Danny Cohen, chief executive of whatever he becomes chief executive of.

The threat is already there.

There has been speculation that the BBC could be priced out of the market for the next series of the Great British Bake Off - even though, or because, the final was the most-watched television programme of 2015 so far with a peak of 12.5 million.

Whatever the reason for the Danny Cohen departure, the real danger faced by the BBC is that it will become the equivalent of a League One football club forced to sell its top talent to survive - or at least unable to afford to hold unto it.

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