Arif Durrani, head of media at Campaign and editor of Media Week
Arif Durrani, head of media at Campaign and editor of Media Week
A view from Arif Durrani

Right now, C4 should gladly sacrifice critical acclaim for more viewers

What happened to Channel 4 this summer? A mass audience exodus made a typically quiet period seem more like a wake.

The broadcaster’s plight was exacerbated when its commercial rival Channel 5 claimed to have outperformed C4 for a week in July in terms of total share of viewing for the first time in its 16-year history.

C4’s chief creative officer, Jay Hunt, opted for a robust line of defence: outright denial. "Channel 5 didn’t beat us for a week by any measure that the industry actually recognises," she told a confused Edinburgh audience last month.

"I think you become quite sanguine," she snapped, sounding far from it. "There’ll be ups and there’ll be downs… I feel pretty relaxed about where we are."

It has been nearly three years since Hunt took control of the schedules and some advertisers and agencies are now openly concerned about the direction they consider an increasingly niche C4 to be heading.

'Advertisers are openly concerned about the direction they consider an increasingly niche C4 to be heading'

Barb data confirms that audiences for its flagship channel fell across core segments in the first half of 2013 – Individuals, ABC1s and 16-34s – and that was before its exceptionally slow summer. The situation will not improve in the first few weeks of September, when year-on-year comparisons will be stacked against the phenomenal 2012 Paralympics coverage.

There is talk of viewing dropping by as much as 30 per cent, leaving agencies wondering how C4 will be able to deliver the commercial impacts promised. There is confusion, too, about why popular but expensive-to-make drama series such as The Mill and Southcliffe launched in August – always one of the broadcaster’s slowest months commercially.

And yet, qualitatively, C4 has produced interesting programmes this summer, fulfilling its PSB remit to provide an alternative to the BBC and ITV. The likes of the gritty urban drama Top Boy will never be mass-market telly. And the interactive documentary First Dates, while far from a ratings winner, received critical acclaim.

The autumn schedule is looking far more promising – in an old-fashioned, people-might-watch-it kind of way. The new US dramas Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hostages sit alongside the proven ratings hits Homeland, Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals and Fresh Meat. There is also Educating Yorkshire, the follow-up to the popular Educating Essex.

We all know it is a period of "creative renewal" at C4, but the broadcaster should happily trade critical acclaim for more viewers for the remainder of the year.