Michael Jackson-the 44-year-old British TV programmer imported by Barry Diller to run Vivendi Universal’s USA Network-disliked The Hamptons , Barbara Kopple’s two-part documentary for ABC.
“I don’t see what they’re going to tell me that we don’t already know,” he said. “Young, dumb people who like to get pissed and laid. Or some starfuckers and some locals who are pissed off, but making money out of it. I think there’s a problem with any show where you already know the story before it starts.”
Money, power and beach houses don’t motivate Michael Jackson. Oh no, learning is his bag. “It’s fascinating,” he gushes about his new role. “I think it’s great to learn new things.”
Mr. Jackson has gotten used to saying what he thinks: In England he ran BBC, BBC 2 and Channel 4, which made him kind of the British Brandon Tartikoff. It also allowed him to say what he wanted. “When you’ve been a king, it’s quite difficult to come to America,” said Mr. Jackson, “There are other kings, and bigger kings. It helps not to tell people they’re all shit.”
It’s these sorts of statements that inspired one British media reporter who followed Mr. Jackson’s career to remark, “Because he’s so sincere, it sometimes came over as outrageous pomposity.”
On Saturday, June 2, Mr. Jackson, slumming like Prince Hal on West 23rd Street, sporting a crappy black T-shirt with a kung-fu fighter on it, a pair of unfashionable blue jeans and some salt-and-pepper stubble, quaffed a beer at Sebastian Junger’s pub, the Half King. After having spent 20 years pulling every television lever available in the U.K., traveling up through the ranks of the BBC, then giving a fizzy zap to Channel 4, the upscale PBS- cum -HBO hybrid, Mr. Jackson had become the latest British entertainment executive-following in the footsteps of Sir Howard Stringer and Lord David Puttnam, to name them all-to attempt to grasp the essence of American taste among the big boys of Hollywood. After living in Notting Hill for 10 years, he’s now going to occupy the USA Network’s Sunset Boulevard offices. And his first attempt at grasping American tastes appears on June 16: The Dead Zone , a spin-off of the Stephen King novel with Anthony Michael Hall, to be broadcast on Sundays at 10 p.m.
The success of these British transplants has been mixed. Lord Puttnam only lasted two ignominious years at Columbia Pictures; Sir Howard Stringer has done better at CBS and Sony. But like his predecessors, Mr. Jackson had great success divining the id of British subjects. At Channel 4, he managed to draw the coveted 18-to-24-year-olds by programming an English version of a series that was coughed out like a hairball over here, Big Brother , as well as something called Da Ali G Show , a fictional documentary series about a Jewish Londoner who dresses like a Rastafarian in Tommy Hilfiger sweatsuits and agitates politicians by interviewing them ineptly.
It may not translate.
But, said Mr. Jackson, “that sense of undermining and provocation, and being funny about it and not being po-faced about it, is very Channel 4.” But Channel 4 in New York means Jeopardy and Sue Simmons and Carson Daly. And “po-faced” in the U.S.A. is a phrase that Jed Clampett might use to describe somebody who isn’t feeling well.
Mr. Jackson said he understands all that. “I wouldn’t use the words ‘provocative’ or ‘subversive’ for USA,” he said. It was different back in the U.K.
Just before he left Channel 4 last October, he aired a mock documentary on pedophilia that made a lot of noise-which is harder to do here, where there’s so much television that viewers are jaded. “That’s the great thing about television in the U.K.,” said Mr. Jackson. “Which is that people still care about what it is and what it does. It’s still part of a kind of national culture. Which it isn’t here to the same extent. There’s so much of it, all of it matters a little less.”
After French media mogul Jean-Marie Messier of Vivendi Universal acquired the USA Network last December for $10.3 billion, Mr. Jackson was bumped up to chairman of the newly formed Universal Television. He now runs the Sci-Fi Channel, a small arts network called TRIO, a sleepy international-news channel and the television studio that produces Law & Order and Jerry Springer . But his primary mission is USA Network. He hopes to find a smash cable hit like The Sopranos or The Osbournes and rebuild the network around it, without alienating the 600,000 or so viewers who default to USA Network and trough it by the hour, like Frosted Flakes.
USA Network may seem like an odd place for Michael Jackson to show up, but not really. He was an outsider even in England. While most lifelong BBC executives pass through Oxford or Cambridge, Mr. Jackson went to Polytechnic of Central London, which in the late 1970′s was one of only two schools offering courses in the then-fledgling major of media studies. “It was heavily influenced by semiotics and Marxist theory,” he said, “the same kind of thinking that went through the teaching of English literature.” A middle-class Englishman who dreamed of America his entire life, Mr. Jackson has the reticent introversion of a pop-culture glutton steeped in old episodes of Batman and Love, American Style .
“He’s really smart, even an intellectual, and just young enough that he doesn’t have that line between high and low, vulgar and quality,” said Kurt Andersen, the Inside.com co-founder and novelist who consults for Mr. Diller. “It’s either done well on its own terms or it’s not. That’s a prerequisite for being successful in TV.”
After working as a freelance producer-he sold a six-part documentary on the 1960′s to the BBC in 1982-his career really took off in 1989 when he founded and produced an arts and culture program called The Late Show for BBC 2. His timing was excellent in TV terms: The first episode featured Salman Rushdie on the very day that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against him for his novel The Satanic Verse s. It was filmed in the BBC studio where Alfred Hitchcock made The 39 Steps .
Mr. Jackson eventually rose to the head of BBC 2, and then of BBC 1, before finally taking over Channel 4, a commercial channel with a mandate for public service. By then, he’d earned a reputation as a sort of TV luminary with an eye for hits. Peter Bazalgette, a producer who invented the U.K. version of Trading Spaces , which appears here on the Learning Channel, said he went to pitch to Mr. Jackson after riding on the London tube. “I thought up Changing Rooms with three stops to go,” he said, “and I went in and pitched it to Michael. And it sounded like a damn fool idea to me. And he looked at me and he said, ‘We’ll try that out; we’ll have a pilot.’ And I stumbled out wondering, ‘What the fuck happened?’”
At Channel 4, Mr. Jackson programmed a documentary on the death of INXS singer Michael Hutchence, who was thought to have perished from autoerotic asphyxiation. Said one British reporter, “Jackson said, in a straight face, ‘You may think this is a tacky program, but if it saved one person from [auto]erotic asphyxiation, then I think it was a worthwhile program.’”
“I was joking ,” said Mr. Jackson.
Mr. Jackson said he wanted to come to America before he met Barry Diller. Two years ago, he began a relationship with his current girlfriend, Rachael Horovitz-the daughter of playwright Israel Horovitz and sister of Beastie Boy Adam-a movie executive at Revolution Studios. On yearly pilgrimages to Los Angeles to screen potential programs for Channel 4, Mr. Jackson began hobnobbing with media big shots. Two years ago, he paid a visit to Mr. Diller at the USA Building on Sunset Boulevard. Last May, Mr. Diller hired him.
“He’s fairly interrogative and questioning and combative, and kind of remarkably thorough,” Mr. Jackson said of Mr. Diller. “And thoughtful.” And then he added, “He’s certainly challenging .”
“I can see why Diller and Jackson get on,” said a British media reporter. “They have that quite similar approach, that magpie mind, always looking for that bright and shiny idea.”
Mr. Jackson arrived last November. “As soon as 9/11 happened, everyone said, ‘Happy!’ ‘Heroes!’” he said. “And, of course, the audience turned out to be interested in what was good and what was interesting and what was stimulating-and not bromides.” The FX Network’s graphic cop drama The Shield , he pointed out, is the most successful drama series in cable history. Mr. Jackson does not have that much patience for big, goofy American fare. “I have yet to meet anyone who really likes Spider-Man ,” he said. “But everyone I’ve met has seen it. You sort of have to see it just to talk about it. It’s a bit like television used to be. It passes the time, you get to talk about it afterwards, a few thrills-but you don’t go ‘Wow!’, either emotionally or intellectually…. I won’t be seeing Star Wars . I saw one of them, and I don’t need to see another one. It’s a formula, isn’t it? I get the formula. I’m not a fan. I don’t need to see it.”
From the man who now runs the Sci-Fi Channel, that may seem blasphemous. But he’s ready to tinker with that channel, too. “We have to make it a little more human, a little less space opera.” The channel has a mini-series on the history of alien abduction, Taken , slated for December.
Mr. Jackson says that TV has the potential for ushering in a new golden age of Hollywood. “I think in some ways television and the movies have swapped over,” he said. “Movies are now big mass entertainment again for the first time since the 40′s. And television, as it has got more demographic, has become more interesting and more diverse. And I think in the 70′s, perhaps it was the other way around: television was mass and movies were diverse, which is why you could have The Godfather and The Conversation and All the President’s Men and Chinatown .”
But if Mr. Jackson wants high culture, he’ll have to be satisfied with TRIO, Vivendi’s arts and culture network that goes into 18 million homes.
Still, Mr. Jackson is trying to up the sophistication, if subtly. This July the USA Network will launch Monk , a detective show in which the protagonist, played by Tony Shalhoub, has obsessive-compulsive disorder. He’s also looking to make a spin-off series of Ang Lee’s upcoming rendition of The Hulk , another based on The Bionic Woman , and a mini-series based on Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 classic Spartacus . And in early 2003, USA Network will present a dramatization of Rudolph Giuliani’s life called Rudy! , starring James Woods.
“It’s less about building some intellectual construct of what the brand might be,” said Mr. Jackson, “and much more about finding shows that will grab people by the lapels.”
Neither a premium cable network nor strongly defined, USA Network has been a vast, longtime problem: Available in 83 million households, it hasn’t ever really created a strong product identity. One former chief, Stephen Chao, a classics major from Harvard who once worked at the National Enquirer , tried to add a Fox-like gaminess to USA Network, tossing in Blind Date , but eventually vanished. The cable network developed an unhealthy viewer inflation due to World Wrestling Federation broadcasts, and collapsed quickly when the W.W.F. departed for TNN. It programmed some series of its own, and occasionally runs special events-it will broadcast the ceremony for the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Tom Hanks June 24-but mostly it’s a home for washed-up, nondescript network carcasses, living or not, like JAG and Nash Bridges and the Law & Order spinoffs.
It’s up to Mr. Jackson to make USA Network a channel with big, fat mass appeal in San Antonio, Duluth and Butte. But first, Mr. Jackson has to learn where they are. The classic cautionary tale is David Puttnam, who produced Chariots of Fire and The Killing Fields , came to run Columbia Pictures in 1984, and was gone by 1986. “I don’t think many people here understand much about the American market, to be honest,” said Peter Bazalgette, the British producer of Big Brother .
“There is a dislocation in coming from England to America,” said Harold Evans, the former editor of The Times of London and founding editor of the Condé Nast Traveler , who has had to gauge commercial potential in both countries. “There’s an enormous exhilaration in the freedom and size of the market. Then one discovers the tremendous hard work in the States, and the ferocity of the competition.”
“It’s a rather genteel world here,” said Michael Grade, Mr. Jackson’s predecessor at Channel 4, who made a play for American success when he joined the now-defunct Embassy Communications, Norman Lear’s production house. “We came up in the good times here. It’s like doing three or four years in the Army: It either makes or breaks you. It’s much more competitive. And success has to be instant .”
As for Mr. Jackson, “It was always his ambition to get to the States,” Mr. Grade said. “But you get over it.”
But Mr. Jackson is pursuing his ambition with the voraciousness of an exchange student. “I’m going to Memphis next week,” he said, “for the Mike Tyson fight. I shall be paying a pilgrimage to Graceland and to the Civil Rights Museum. And I’m going to Nashville as well.” The difference, said Mr. Jackson, between himself and the showbiz Brits who washed up on the rocks here is that he actually likes Hollywood.
“I actually fundamentally like it,” he said. “I’m interested in it. I appreciate what it’s good at, as well as its excesses…. You have to have some love for it-for the business, for what it is intrinsically, for the country, for Hollywood …. ” Then he considered things.
“Some distanced love,” he said.
Follow Joe Hagan via RSS.