John Willis heads home

It was an offer he couldn't refuse. Earlier this month, John Willis, VP of national programming for Boston, U.S.-based public channel WGBH, accepted a position with the BBC as the U.K. pubcaster's new director of factual and learning.
April 1, 2003

It was an offer he couldn’t refuse. Earlier this month, John Willis, VP of national programming for Boston, U.S.-based public channel WGBH, accepted a position with the BBC as the U.K. pubcaster’s new director of factual and learning. ‘It was an irresistible opportunity,’ says Willis. ‘Not only am I responsible for all the factual programs the BBC is making on its four television channels and some radio, but I have a position on the executive committee… I have a voice on much wider issues, outside of factual programs, in terms of the future of the BBC.’

But, the Beeb’s gain is wgbh’s loss; Willis joined the Boston station only in June 2002. During his short stint, Willis says he worked hard to forge closer ties with British copro partners, and put in motion approximately 30 new projects. One endeavor of which he is particularly proud is The Mayflower, an 8 x 1-hour series that will see a replica of the famous ship built and sailed across the Atlantic by modern-day pilgrims. Though the budget details are still being worked out, ITN Factual and Channel 4 in the U.K. have already signed on as copro partners, alongside WGBH and PBS.

‘I had been very happy at WGBH,’ Willis notes. ‘It’s a terrific place, a blue-chip company with a lot of very talented people. The bbc is probably the only place I would have considered leaving here for.’ At press time, WGBH had not named Willis’s successor.

With a mandate to oversee US$450 million in in-house production as well as independent projects, Willis won’t have time to feel melancholy when he officially starts his new job in June. And, he’s already thinking about what needs to be done. Says Willis, ‘One of the jobs I can do is instill, or re-instill, confidence in documentaries as a very critical part of the texture of any television broadcaster. The BBC does make a lot of really good documentaries now, but I think there’s more that could be done.’

That spirit has some at the Beeb eagerly anticipating his arrival, such as Nick Fraser, commissioning editor for the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ strand. ‘He’s very good at supplying what the British call ‘lining’. It’s a complimentary expression meaning…depth.’ Fraser and Willis worked together 10 years ago at Channel 4, when Willis was director of programs. Willis later served as chief exec for United Productions in the U.K., prior to that company’s takeover by Granada.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.