Media: Perspective - Thompson left his C4 legacy in costs and programming

Mark Thompson's return to the BBC recalls Alan Partridge's tirade against BBC executives in their "John Lennon glasses and flip flops". "They've all been to Oxbridge University, wherever that is," spits a disillusioned Partridge as he considers the unfairness of the politically correct "Mr and Ms's of the BBC".

Thompson seemed to come right out of this mould with his degree from Merton College, Oxford, and years spent in the BBC's "officer class" before becoming the chief executive of Channel 4 in January 2002.

When he joined Channel 4, Campaign dubbed him a "young fogey" and now he's even got the beard to prove it. But Thompson's time at Channel 4 shattered the myth that he was a dull, safe pair of hands.

He might not have left an imprint on the public's mind as large as that of predecessors such as the "pornographer-in-chief" and new BBC chairman, Michael Grade, but Thompson's legacy will be one of a man who made the right, often tough, decisions at the right time.

On arriving at Channel 4, Thompson was faced with a tricky situation as its 4Ventures division hit the buffers. Forced to unveil Channel 4's first loss in a decade (not helped by a slump in ad revenues), Thompson then embarked on a radical cost-cutting exercise. Within six months, 200 jobs were cut and the loss-making FilmFour division was folded back into the company. Thompson promised more money for programme making after the streamlining of 4Ventures.

It seems to have worked. In 2003, 4Ventures made money (if restructuring costs are excluded) and group profits more than doubled to £45 million.

Share of peak-time audience was a steady 9.5 per cent.

But what about the other real test - programming? There have been plenty of successes under Thompson. Capturing The Simpsons, establishing Hollyoaks in the weekly schedule, the reality shows Wife Swap and Jamie's Kitchen, original comedy in Bo Selecta! and the first "returning" dramas in Teachers and Shameless.

Under Thompson, 78 per cent of peaktime programming was original, compared with 68 per cent ten years ago. On the downside, too much of it is still home improvement and mediocre reality programming (with the obvious exception of anything featuring Sarah Beeny). But the return of the director of programming, Kevin Lygo, from five should bring more creativity to the schedule.

However, Thompson's timing is terrible for Channel 4. While you can't blame him for going, it is left rudderless as it faces questions over its future funding and merger opportunities. Whoever replaces Thompson (Sky's Dawn Airey or an enlarged role for the chairman, Luke Johnson, have been reported as likely options) needs to be rolling up their sleeves sooner rather than later.


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