At Home in American TV

Brit Michael Jackson extends his programming savvy to the Web

When a pending takeover of Vivendi Universal Entertainment (VUE) threw Michael Jackson's future as Universal Television Group chairman into question, many assumed he would pack it in and head back to his native England. After all, before taking charge of two major cable networks and a TV studio, Jackson had run Britain's Channel 4 and was the top programmer of the BBC's two biggest channels.

Not only was that assumption wrong, it was uninformed. Jackson is an unrepentant American-TV geek, steeped in the history of Hollywood sitcoms and cheesy action shows. He worried that speculation about his repatriation would dissuade other media companies from reaching out with an offer.

Jackson worries no more. Last month, InterActive Corp. CEO Barry Diller tapped him to start a programming unit for the company. The new gig is a reunion with Diller, who brought Jackson to the U.S. to run what would become VUE.

Jackson developed a passion for American culture growing up outside Manchester, England, in the 1960s. The son of a bread baker, he found the largely black-and-white programming on British TV dull. “American television with its pizzazz, its pace, its glamour certainly stuck out,” he says. “I look back at Batman or The Monkees as my TV shows.”

After majoring in media studies at Polytechnic of Central London (now known as University of Westminster), Jackson emerged at an auspicious time for British TV. The government was creating a broadcast network called Channel 4. Whereas the BBC is commercial-free, Channel 4 is ad-supported.

Channel 4 expanded the market for TV execs and independent producers. Jackson spent a few months at a group lobbying on behalf of producers before striking out on his own and selling a six-part history of the '60s. He was 22.

Jackson's career took a significant turn in 1989 when he founded and produced The Late Show, an arts-and-culture program for BBC2. The debut episode featured Salman Rushdie on the same day that Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against the author.

In 1993, after heading up music and arts programming, Jackson was named controller—the top programming-strategy and -scheduling job—of BBC2 and, later, BBC1. With his working-class background and tastes, Jackson stood out among the Oxford and Cambridge grads who dominated the BBC's ranks.

“So many people at the BBC are so bookish; they went from university to the BBC, and there they remained,” says Fenton Bailey, managing director of production company World of Wonder, who has worked on shows with Jackson for more than a decade. Jackson “doesn't have this sort of highbrow/lowbrow problem. He just spits it all out.”

In 1996, Jackson jumped ship to Channel 4, whose programming strategy has been a cross of PBS and HBO. Many shows developed on his watch have crossed the Atlantic, including Da Ali G Show, Big Brother and Queer as Folk.

Jackson met Diller on a programming-shopping trip to L.A. The pair clicked, and Diller installed Jackson as chairman of USA Entertainment, which included USA Network and Sci Fi Channel.

USA had been sagging in the ratings and needed new focus. “Should it be hipper?” Jackson asked. “Should it be an intrinsically Middle America network?”

The solution: play to USA Network's traditional strength outside major metro markets with mainstream series like Monk and The Dead Zone. “USA should revel in its CBSness, not its Foxness,” Jackson says.

The approach proved successful, but Jackson's tenure was cut short. A few months after his arrival, Diller sold USA Entertainment to major shareholder Vivendi, which in turn sold the operation, along with Universal Studios, to NBC in 2004.

Now back with Diller at InterActive, Jackson is excited about the prospects of programming on the Web. “There's an opportunity to establish things outside the clutches of the existing media players,” he says.

Despite the explosion in TV and Web outlets, Jackson sees holes in the market. “The smart audience is underserved. You can see that from the success of The Sopranos or The Daily Show,” he says. “But there's also a lot of bland cop shows, which is sort of default TV.”

Still, Diller and Jackson's plan isn't about plunging back into TV. “If you've edited content for users, that's a skill you like to flex,” Jackson says. “Once, Barry flexed that at a movie company, then TV networks. We still think well edited content is going to be valuable.”

Jackson's blueprint for InterActive is simply to “combine the art and science of TV and unique capabilities of the Web.”