Media Forum: Can Channel 4 change?

After ten years of Big Brother, can C4 transform itself, Ian Darby asks.

Channel 4 came out fighting last week. It was dropping Big Brother, the programme which, for better or worse, it has become most famous for. But when the show is axed in 2010 after its 11th series, we will witness, the broadcaster says, "the most significant creative transformation" in its history.

And the programme that gave a platform to Nasty Nick, Jade Goody and, erm, adland's very own Jonathan Durden, will be looking for a new home. Kevin Lygo, the director of television and content at C4, announced that £20 million of the money saved from the Big Brother contract with its producers Endemol will go towards funding drama across C4 and E4 from 2011.

And about time too, the Big Brother critics argue: this will see C4 moving closer to its remit and could help the broadcaster in future negotiations over its structure as it looks for help from the Government (increased subsidy might have been ruled out but joint ventures with other media owners remain a possibility). However, there seems little doubt that Big Brother leaves C4 with a big hole to fill.

It accounted for 200 peaktime hours of programming on C4 and E4 and although audiences had slipped to nearer two million from previous highs of around six million, C4 argued that the show was still profitable and that the move to cancel it was driven "more by creative considerations than commercial ones".

Although C4 might be ploughing an extra £20 million into drama programming and is looking at creating "stunts and events" to replace Big Brother, this seems a drop in the ocean compared with the £125 million cut in programming budget that the broadcaster has made in the past two years.

So what do advertisers make of the move? Can C4 use the axing of Big Brother, as well as recent successes with programming such as Skins, as a springboard for a creative renaissance or is it doomed to fail?

Paul Evans, the head of media, EMEA, at Microsoft Xbox, argues that there is hope for C4 in its programming track record: "Channel 4 is inherently an innovative and transformational business - it's in its brand DNA. Arguably, it has pushed the boundaries of content and commissioning strategy - think Shameless, Skins, Queer As Folk and, of course, Big Brother's introduction a decade ago - more than any other broadcaster."

And Jonathan Durden, the former Big Brother contestant and now the creative partner at MPG, agrees that the move could free C4 to be more progressive. He says: "Ten years is a good run for Big Brother on C4, Endemol knows what it's doing and C4 needs to be more pioneering with programming and new channels such as online, so this should work for both parties."

Chris Hayward, the head of investment at ZenithOptimedia, argues that C4 will struggle to replace Big Brother's scale but he also sees some positive signs in recent programming. He says: "Big Brother will prove a challenge to replace - doing two million in a C4 context is still a substantial audience but it's the right decision as the show had reached the end of its shelf life.

The challenge is to replace the consistency of that audience, but what C4 has been able to do in recent years is make strong dramatic content such as Skins and The Inbetweeners."

However, Daren Rubins, the managing director of PHD, feels that C4 will struggle to innovate without Big Brother. He says: "Not only does it leave a monstrous hole in its schedule and revenue, but it also signals the end of an era when the C4 franchise has been defined by a single property. C4 needs to view this as an opportunity - and Hollywood is testament that big budgets don't always guarantee success - but I have grave concerns over the next generation of C4. Despite its clear remit to create 'diverse and innovative programmes and services', someone is going to have to make a call on whether to protect its integrity or protect its income."

YES - Paul Evans, head of media, EMEA, Microsoft Xbox

"A change in approach was overdue, with the trend towards reality programming becoming a slightly tired proposition. But I've every confidence that C4 will respond to the challenge it faces going forward."

YES - Jonathan Durden, creative partner, MPG

"Channel 4 has bigger battles to fight than with individual programmes. I'm sure it wouldn't be getting rid of Big Brother now had there not been bigger issues at stake."

MAYBE - Chris Hayward, head of investment, Zenith- Optimedia

"It's not beyond the reaches of C4 but this will be a significant challenge. Yet if you look at the likes of Skins, then C4 has managed to continue producing something unique, so it has a chance."

NO - Daren Rubins, managing director, PHD

"I fear that commercial pressures will dictate endless reformatted versions of Grand Designs or Come Dine With Me. Finding an additional £20 million for drama is a start but, right now, the contrast between the BBC's resources and its commercial rivals has never been as stark."

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