Media Forum: Is C4's new blueprint viable?

Will the Channel 4 chief's vision for the future work, Alasdair Reid asks.

One of the truly distinctive things about Channel 4 is its seemingly limitless potential for reinvention. In some ways, the current BBC, in its values and aspirations, is not a million miles away from the BBC of the David Frost satire boom era. Likewise, ITV will always have Opportunity Knocks (or variants thereof) at its heart.

Each of Channel 4's bosses have made something new and distinctive of their plaything. Jeremy Isaacs launched a spiky media-arts operation; Michael Grade made it a showcase for Cheers; Michael Jackson turned it into a mini motion-pictures-and-digital-media conglomerate; Mark Thompson made it synonymous with Big Brother; while Andy Duncan ...

Actually, Duncan, though he presided over the blandest years in programming and branding terms, came to more interesting historical conclusions than any of his predecessors. He claimed, no less, to have been visited by an apocalyptic vision of the end of the road.

Channel 4, he announced, could no longer be expected to pay its way if it was to continue honouring its distinctive remit. He called for (nay, demanded) Government intervention. His reasoning (or the way that his reasoning was presented, which may amount to the same thing) was deemed to have flaws - and he made the ultimate sacrifice for his political miscalculation, departing in November 2009.

But like Dr Who, the channel is able, rather miraculously, to regenerate. The new Doctor, personified in the earthling form of the chief executive, David Abraham, has arrived complete with a new vision for Channel 4 - and, in an instant, it's as if the Andy Duncan Doctor had never existed.

Actually, the new vision is rather reminiscent of one of the older visions. It is, it seems, a bit like the Isaacs (Channel 4.1.0) version minus the posturing and the petulant attempts to enrage the bourgeoisie. Channel 4 is going to have a go at meeting its remit (distinctive, whatever that means, programming) and attracting the same premium (young and upmarket) audiences while making ends meet through the savings achieved by sacking a chunk of the workforce.

And an important psychological marker has been laid down. There will be no more talk of Government hand-outs or licence-fee raids or mergers with the BBC.

Brave. More than a little spirited. But will it work? It's not out of the question, Chris Locke, the group trading director at Starcom MediaVest Group, responds. He reasons: "You can argue that they don't have enough people as it is. All aspects of the media business run on contact and human engagement and there are aspects of its business - for instance, the online and video-on-demand space - that are quite clunky and mechanistic. As with all businesses, there's a limit to what you can achieve from cutting costs alone. On the other hand, its share of spot advertising revenue has been holding up - and the reality of the market currently is that even if you wanted to take money out of Channel 4, there's no-one else to give it to, due to the poor impact delivery of rival sales points."

Meanwhile, Mike Colling, the managing director of MC&C, is even more upbeat. He comments: "I'm entirely with David Puttnam when he says that creativity is the last tool left in the (UK's economic) toolbox - and in previous generations, Channel 4 has been the most adroit user of that tool.

"In terms of the new emphasis on self-reliance, I think the changes Abraham is trying to implement reflect the changes we're seeing - or are about to see - in British society as a whole. I'm not worried that this is happening at a time when Channel 4 is about to lose its ratings bulwark for the past ten years, Big Brother. In fact it's perfect."

Absolutely, Chris Allen, the head of vision at MPG Media Contacts, agrees. He says: "Abraham's restructure has integrated the commissioning and content teams in a move which will future-proof the organisation within the context of a converging landscape. A single division working across multiple touchpoints will tightly knit creativity and innovation into the fabric of Channel 4. I eagerly await the creation of engaging programming in the post-Big Brother era."

Chris Wright, the head of broadcast at Initiative, concludes: "That Abraham has joined from UKTV means he knows about working within a budget and within the constraints of the market dynamics that exist. And the one thing that Channel 4 will continue to have going for it is the nature of its audience profile. Even if the numbers are down slightly the profile remains attractive to advertisers."

YES - Chris Locke, group trading director, Starcom MediaVest Group

"When the world changes, what tends to happen with mature businesses is that they build an extension. What Abraham is trying to do is knock it down and build a new modern house. It's possible to succeed."

YES - Mike Colling, managing director, MC&C

"Channel 4 has always been at its best when it has relied on its own powers of innovation and British creativity. It has arguably been at its worst when it has shown an over-reliance on imported US material."

YES - Chris Allen, head of vision, MPG Media Contacts

"While the revised structure will generate cost savings, it will also streamline decision-making. A deeper understanding of audience will allow C4 to build a renewed affinity with new and loyal viewers alike."

YES - Chris Wright, head of broadcast, Initiative

"Channel 4 has always had a creative flair and a challenger brand mentality that will stand it in good stead; if any broadcaster has the ability to react to the new environment it's likely to be Channel 4. You need investment - but it's about having the right people and the right ideas."

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