‘When you see your show advertised on a massive billboard in Hollywood it’s very rewarding’
Managing director of Waddell Media, Jannine Waddell, talks to Emma Deighan about making hit television programmes and her shock at being awarded an MBE
Managing director of Waddell Media, Jannine Waddell, had a hugely successful London-based TV career before she returned home to run the family business.
The TV producer, who grew up in Helen's Bay and is a mother of three, was formerly the BBC's editor for travel programming, and she has producing credits for The Big Breakfast, The Great Antiques Hunt and Challenge Anneka among many other high profile TV shows.
Having spent 20 years of her working life in the hub of UK broadcasting a move home, she says, was a daunting prospect, but the thriving family firm in Co Down needed someone to manage operations after her father Brian Waddell took a back seat.
It was Jannine's husband, David Cumming, who is now Waddell Media's managing editor, who trialled the job before the family committed.
"My father was like 'who is going to come back and look after it' so my husband went back for a year to see if he liked it and he loved it. He said to me 'I think we should do it', and it was the best move. The kids were coming to school age, and schools in London are so competitive and I thought it would be a lot to raise them there, so we came home," says Jannine.
So the couple fronted the now 30-year-old firm after Brian Waddell passed away over eight years ago.
And their success is very much something that would make Mr Waddell proud.
Waddell Media has landed deals with US broadcasting giants The Discovery Channel, History Channel US, and National Geographic as well as Channel 4, RTE, BBC and ITV.
In fact the triumphs the company has celebrated since it was set up in 1988, and more recently under Jannine's leadership, have earned her an MBE on the Queen's Birthday Honours' List this year.
"That letter arrived while I was in South Africa and my husband called me and said there was something very official looking in the post. I thought, what have I done. Am I in trouble.
"But oh my goodness I couldn't believe it and I'm not sure who recommended me but it's a huge recognition not just for me, but the company. We are a huge team."
Indeed Waddell has grown over the years, from what Jannine describes as an "almost cottage industry" set-up to the production company it is today, distributing 50 hours of television series a year.
"In the last 18 months, we've produced 15 series, five one-off documentaries with a team of 20 core staff and 45-50 staff across our busiest season in the summer," explains Jannine.
She says among her biggest productions since her return in 2003, are At Your Service, Series 11, an Irish makeover programme for the hospitality trade, How Jaws Changed the World, which aired on Discovery US and Channel 4, and Future Weapons, also on Discovery US.
"When an American company gets behind a production and you're in New York and see those advertisements on the subway or on a massive billboard in Hollywood, it's very rewarding," she says, still humbled by the achievements Waddell has made.
That modesty is to be expected given that she goes on to explain the process behind creating a production: "We have a small development team and finding a new way to approach a subject matter is a challenge. For every 50 ideas we have, there will be one that gets a glimmer of hope. As broadcasters we need a thick skin and it's all about relationships too and building those up."
Closer to home, and more recently, a production on advertising here during the Troubles is among Jannine's most poignant work.
Ads on the Frontline, which was aired on BBC, looks at the controversial and violent series of commercials produced by the Northern Ireland Office during the last 10 years of the Troubles.
"Every advertising trick in the book was used to try and encourage people to ring a confidential police phone line and share information," says Jannine.
"The purported purpose of the adverts was to save lives by preventing paramilitary violence, but many people remain convinced that they were little more than British government propaganda, designed to promote the security forces and paint republican and loyalist groups as criminals," reads the synopsis for the show presented by Eamonn Holmes.
For Jannine, Ads on the Frontline provided a mix of both nostalgia and realisation of how far NI has come over the years,
"Just seeing those ads again took me back 25 years and it was interesting seeing my children's reaction," she says.
One-off successful productions are something of a forte for Waddell. However, its series are equally as popular.
Shows like Getaways and Paul and Nick's Big Food Trip as well as 4Thought.tv, a series of short documentaries for Channel 4, have also achieved high ratings and in the Republic, hoteliers John and Francis Brennan's shows are always crowd pleasers.
Jannine's business goal is to create a format that can be sold globally much like the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Bake-Off type shows.
"We are always after a series, a good format that we can sell. That's a really good business model, rather than a one-off. And even though I love doing those one-offs, ultimately we are a business," she says.
Business is a new string to the producer's bow, but a hearty work ethic, she says, was always built in.
Jannine began earning as a young teenager when she set tables at a restaurant. She also worked in bars in Greece and at a kiosk in a local shopping centre and says: "I always knew I had to work, that work ethic was really strong in my house."
Jannine bypassed university to get straight into the action of the television world. The inspiration behind those career goals lay in the family home.
Prior to setting up Waddell Media in 1988, her father worked for UTV.
He was also a well-known journalist which meant Jannine and her siblings were exposed to the media environment from an early age. Her brother and sister both work in the industry today.
"It was very exciting, we were always interested in the news, especially growing up during the Troubles. It was always a topic of conversation."
Jannine then moved to London after a stint of being a runner at Irish RM in Dublin.
"I didn't go to university because I always knew I would end up in television so I worked my way up from making tea. In fact, no matter what route I took, I would've ended up making teas and I still do a lot of that today!"
Beyond her Holywood base, Jannine travels between her offices in London and Los Angeles.
It's a lifestyle that has taken its toll when she says "sometimes I feel like crying at the airport security gates" and a demand that thankfully brought her back home after she realised parenting Orla (19), Finn (17) and Lorcan (12) would mean travelling less.
"There has still been a lot of juggling since I moved back but I've had the same childminder, Caroline, who has been fantastic at keeping the ship steady because no matter what, working in television means things go wrong and you could be called to a meeting in New York or London at short notice."
And those short-notice work trips have given her food for thought.
"When I'm sitting in the City Airport I see how hard it is for SMEs here to compete with the rest of the UK when the prices of flights to London are so extortionate.
"Often we will get asked to a meeting at very short notice and you really have to go but recently to get me to London on weekday short-notice flights are costing over £350 one way! It makes being based in Northern Ireland a big disadvantage. There is simply not enough capacity to let small businesses compete," she says.
It makes sense then that she is at the forefront of her industry when it comes to discussing such matters.
Jannine recently took on the chair role at Women in Film and Television (WFTV) NI in March this year. It's the first time the organisation has set up shop in Northern Ireland.
"It is a really important time for women in the industry and with the #MeToo and equal pay issues at the forefront, it is really important that women working in the industry here feel supported. We have some great talent and it's important to nurture that talent," she says.
Asked about current issues facing all sectors here, including Brexit and 19 months without an Executive, she continues: "That's external to us and we just get on with it, but yes, we also need to be nimble and on our toes when it concerns Brexit. We may open an office in Dublin too."
Despite the latter challenges, Jannine says that the opportunities here are significantly better in comparison to what they were during the Troubles era.
"It's difficult being based here, it's that stretch of water, but it's getting better. It's not the perfect situation but there are opportunities here and the industry is growing. What NI Screen has done with film and drama is fantastic and they're working hard with us to push new things.
"When we produced 4Thought nearly all the team came from London. A lot about this industry is gaining experience on the job so you find a lot of people move away. I would've, many years ago, encouraged people to go to London but you don't have to do that now. You can start and build a career here."
Jannine lives and breathes television production. As does her husband, who she met while working on Challenge Anneka, but asked if her children will follow a career in media, she's not so sure.
"My daughter is on a year out in Costa Rica. She's studying psychology so she can sort me out in my later years," she jokes.
What she is sure of is, after a busy year where she balanced managing a company with producing new, and returning, series, her family is due a break.
"It's hard to switch off when you own your own business but there will be 15 of us going to Lesbos. It's a fantastic place for teenagers.
"I may still be editing while we're away, and the kids may kill me for it!"