MEDIA: Behind the Hype - Johnson can be key at a crucial time for Channel 4

Luke Johnson has his part to play as Channel 4 tries to rebuild, Jeremy Lee writes.

It was inevitable that the appointment of Luke Johnson as the new chairman of Channel 4 would be overshadowed by the rather more dramatic events occurring at the BBC. But the newspapers still took time, and no doubt some delight, in revealing that his only other experience of TV was an appearance on the BBC series Back to the Floor.

As the chairman of Signature Restaurants (which owns among others The Ivy and Le Caprice), Johnson was persuaded to become a waiter in one of his Belgo eateries. It was not a great success - Johnson ended up ripping off his microphone, telling the producer to "shove" the programme.

Johnson, 41, was a surprise choice for the job of replacing Vanni Treves at Channel 4, with all the wise money going on Penny Hughes, the former head of Coca- Cola's UK operation.

Instead, Ofcom, in consultation with Channel 4, appointed a man whose father, the journalist Paul Johnson, has been one of the station's fiercest critics. It was Johnson senior who described the former Channel 4 chief executive Michael Grade as "the pornographer in chief".

Historically, the post of chairman of Channel 4 has been one for grandees from the business world. The incumbent before Treves, who is the chairman of the assurance company Equitable Life, was Sir Michael Bishop, the founder of the budget airline bmi.

The post carries with it an annual stipend of £67,500 per year and given Channel 4's public service remit and the challenges it faces, carries some responsibility.

Johnson will chair a non-executive board consisting of Barry Cox, the Government's digital tsar; Peter Bazalgette, the chairman of Endemol; Andrew Graham, the master of Balliol College; Robin Miller, a former chief executive of Emap, and Joe Sinyor, the former chief executive, newspapers, of Trinity Mirror.

The board meets with the five members of the Channel 4 executive - led by the chief executive, Mark Thompson - about every six weeks to set the channel's strategy, remuneration packages and to ensure that the executive is complying with the terms of the channel's licence. Johnson will be expected to commit himself to Channel 4 for one day a week.

Channel 4's board of governors does not wield any regulatory or investigative authority - under the terms of its charter this is now carried out by Ofcom. Therefore any complaints about its programming are automatically referred to the regulator. The board monitors corporate governance and also uses its business experience to offer impartial advice.

Johnson is seen as a colourful choice for the role. While he cannot claim to have a background in TV, nor did his predecessors and, anyway, the deputy chairman, Barry Cox, is broadcast savvy.

He joins as Channel 4 emerges from one of the most dramatic periods in its history. Thompson has had to make severe cutbacks after Channel 4 slipped into the red and last year its share of viewing dropped below the 10 per cent mark for the first time.

With so many of its "banker" US import shows, such as Friends and Frasier, drawing to an end, Channel 4 needs to find the next big thing if it is not to drop further.

Tess Alps, the chairman of PHD, says that Johnson needs to encourage this process. "He must support Kevin Lygo (the director of programmes) and Mark Thompson as they experiment with new programming formats," she says.

Privatisation is off the agenda, at least under the current administration, but Johnson will need to use all his business acumen to monitor the impact of the merged ITV sales house, and consider if a sales merger with a rival broadcaster is now right for Channel 4.

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