Steering History Into the ‘Peak TV’ Era


TITLE: President and General Manager

COMPANY: History

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Has brought viewers everything from Escaping Polygamy to Sherlock. Successfully relaunched A+E Networks’ Bio channel as FYI and reprogrammed sibling movie network LMN. Oversaw A+E’s multichannel roadblock airing of Roots and is now leading History into high-profile documentaries and scripted series. Honored by Queen Elizabeth for her contributions to science broadcasting at BBC.

QUOTABLE: “[Finding hit shows] is just about having your antennae out about the way people are living their lives. You just have to keep tapping into different interests and not just think about what we’ve already done, that’s already been consumed. Audiences want to be surprised.”

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When Jana Bennett started her first stint as a U.S. cable executive in 1999, her mission was to lead Discovery-owned TLC into the then-new world of reality programming with the motto “Life Unscripted.”

Now that she has returned to New York after more than a decade as a top BBC executive, Bennett is leading A+E Networks-owned History in just the opposite direction: toward documentaries and scripted series that are defining the current era of “peak TV.’’

A journalist-turned-executive, Bennett has overseen a lengthy string of successful programs, from Trading Spaces for TLC to Walking With Dinosaurs and Doctor Who for the BBC, to Roots and Vikings for History. In 2013, she reinvented A+E’s Bio channel as FYI and pushed it and sibling LMN to double-digit ratings growth in her first year.

“Jana is an accomplished executive with an enviable track record of success. She possesses the rare combination of creative and business acumen that every business leader should strive for,” Paul Buccieri, president of A+E Studios and A+E Networks Portfolio Group, said.


Before and after her stint at Discovery, Bennett spent what many people would consider a full career in the U.K. at the BBC. She started as a trainee after college and rose to be the top content executive for the publicly funded and regulated television provider. Bennett oversaw six networks, including two children’s networks she introduced and BBC’s digital iPlayer service.

She also ran BBC Worldwide, the broadcaster’s commercial arm, from 2010 to 2012. She has even received an Order of the British Empire award from Queen Elizabeth for her contributions to science broadcasting.

That makes her sound thoroughly British — but Bennett actually is a Yank, born in Cooperstown, N.Y. Her educator parents moved the family to England just as Bennett became a teenager, so she went to high school there and then attended Oxford.

At first, she said, she was a “fish out of water’’ who never lost her American accent. But that turned out to be a useful perspective. “In my career that’s been true in moving companies or organizations or subject areas. I guess it helped me take a slightly oblique, sideways look at what I’m doing.”

She spent three years away from the BBC when she took over TLC in 1999. “I’d never run a channel, never worked as an adult in the U.S.,’’ she said. “I thrive by the cha l lenge of something being new and different.”

By the time she returned to New York in 2013 to launch FYI and oversee LMN, the reality and semi-scripted shows on U.S. cable networks had proliferated to the point of “things being a bit same-y,’’ she said. At FYI, she and programming head Gena McCarthy added “tiny house” shows and Married at First Sight.

Now, Bennett is not only putting “the history back in History,’’ as she has said, but broadening its offerings to include more recent events, such as Six, the scripted series based on the Navy SEAL team that captured Osama bin Laden, and timely interpretations, such as The Black Man’s Guide to History starring Kevin Hart.

Viewers want true stories, she said — regardless of whether the national political conversation is in a “post-fact” era. “There’s almost a craving for those essential stories. … The pace of change that people feel they’re experiencing right now, as we’re in a true technological revolution, makes you hanker after stories that tell you how we got here right now.’’

“History itself and History as a brand is a very powerful storytelling platform where there’s an infinite variety of stories to be told,” Bennett said. “The great thing about History as a brand is that it’s very trusted. … I think it’s a huge strength and a huge responsibility.”

Viewers are also responding to the skyrocketing standard for scripted dramas, born out of intense competition among cable and streaming networks, and the more prominent platform that streaming services give documentaries. “The special treatment of big documentary stories has made them have even more [appeal]. Instead of being ‘duty programing,’ as we might have called it 10 years ago, it’s vying with drama for epic big stories.”

She credited mentors both formal and informal for helping her steady ascent at the BBC and A+E. The informal network is a group of women journalists she has known since her days as a trainee, and with whom she still shares a regular “GNO” — girls’ night out — in London.

Early in her career, she recalled, she almost didn’t pursue the job of head of BBC science programming because she was about to have a second child. Luckily, she said, someone urged her on and she would give the same advice: “Just go for it. All the other things you’re worried about will get solved.”

Now that second baby, a son named Skomer (appropriately enough, it’s a Viking name), is 22 and a student at the University of Vermont. Alexandra, 25, works for a consumer research company in London. Bennett lives in Brooklyn, near the iconic bridge, with her husband, producer and former BBC executive Richard Clemmow, “a Brit who loves adventure.’’


For fun, the amateur guitarist and singer takes in folk music at the nearby Jalopy Theater. And then there’s the thrill of American “big weather,” whether it’s near-hurricane winds or a blast of sunshine.

She began to fall in love with history as a child home sick from school — and as one of five sisters, enjoying the rare occasion of having her mother all to herself. She remembers her mother, a history teacher, reading books aloud with her about the California redwoods and the Egyptian pyramids. “That instilled in my bones a love of history and also a love of the international, the world at large.”

Several decades after that, Bennett and her mother, then 83, found themselves visiting Egypt during the Arab Spring protests. The melee in Tahrir Square led to looting and damage at the national archaeological museum, but the two women fought their way in regardless.

“Things that are interesting are worth fighting to discover,’’ Bennett said. “That was one of the things that has always motivated me. The media gives you great rewards if you remain curious.”