Channel 4 boss: we need to be the craft beer of TV

Alex Mahon argues localism will be driving force for business in a speech at RTS Cambridge Convention.

Mahon: compared localised TV to boutique gin
Mahon: compared localised TV to boutique gin

Channel 4 chief executive Alex Mahon has said that localism is the way forward for the broadcaster and suggested that the industry is often too myopically focused on the macro media landscape.

Speaking yesterday (19 September) at the RTS Cambridge Convention, Mahon said that "when we pan out, we see this British landscape", but asked: "What happens when you zoom in?"

"Then, you’ll see that our territory is made up of something else," she said. "Or rather lots of something elses. It is an aggregate – a collection of multiple smaller landscapes, of varied localities – that together create our national richness."

While Mahon admitted that the direction of travel in TV, in digital and in business is "generally global", something that is not global cannot be dismissed out of hand.

"Something that is ‘local’ sounds a bit, well, irrelevant, a bit quaint, perhaps a bit retro," she said. "Local people, issues, newspapers, local government: they all sound like they don’t quite matter in the scheme of things.

"But perhaps as viewers we should be wary of a future controlled by just the biggest players in tech. A world where content is consumed mainly on iOS and Android, or page two of six searched for on Google or Alexa, and a very few companies control what you watch, and serve their own content and services first in commercial priority above anything else."

Mahon drew an analogy between TV and the global alcoholic drinks market, comparing global TV to global brands that distribute "the same recipe to lots of different markets".

She acknowledged the "economics of this trans-territory filler work", adding that "Netflix can stitch together one big audience from a set of separate, disassociated audiences in different markets". But she said this model risked creating content that lacked "piquancy to large domestic audiences".

Her speech came after Channel 4 announced a 1.6% rise in total revenue to £975m in June, with a 0.9% decline in TV ad and sponsorship revenues offset by digital growth. Channel 4, like other predominantly linear TV broadcasters, is facing challenges from the rise in subscription video-on-demand. According to the latest IPA TouchPoints research, 71% of viewers aged 15-34 now watch SVOD platforms each week, up from 63% last year.

Instead of looking at globally reaching brands, Channel 4 and its ilk should seek inspiration from boutique gin and craft beer, Mahon suggested. Such products grow because of their "grassroots foundations, their independence and the fact that they are embedded in small creative communities".

"Whether it’s beer or television, I think the antidote to blandness is to find relevance in a different set of values: innovation, distinctiveness, experimentation, diversity," she said. "Those values are what can bring relevance."

Mahon cited the growth of the tech giants such as Google, Amazon and Netflix, adding that Channel 4 and its British broadcasting peers represented a "vital counterpoint to the growing concentration of power in the hands of just a few tech behemoths who increasingly want to decide what we read, watch and listen to".

She concluded: "After all, to return to the beer analogy, do we really want to find a bottle of Budweiser waiting for us on the bar before we even decide which bar to walk into? Personally, I’d rather the craft beer and the choice."

Meanwhile, Channel 4 has been extending its reach into other areas of TV viewing, not least with a deal signed this week to have its content carried on Sky’s AdSmart addressable ad platform, which tailors advertising to demographics and location.

Reflecting on that agreement, Mahon said: "Collaboration with Sky has helped us keep Formula One on free-to-air TV and will allow us to offer more addressability to our advertisers."

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