Media Forum: What strategy should Channel 4 follow?

Has Mark Thompson left Channel 4 in good shape? What are the challenges for his successor? The departure of a Channel 4 chief executive is less of a shock to the system than it once was. When the channel's founding chief executive, Jeremy Isaacs, made way for Michael Grade more than a decade ago, many (not least Isaacs himself) worried that the Channel 4 culture, so carefully nourished and protected from sustained political and press attack, would be changed utterly.

Well, it was and it wasn't. It would be foolish to suggest that Grade left no mark. Ditto his successor, Michael Jackson, and the most recent incumbent, Mark Thompson. Grade leavened the archetypally quirky homegrown Channel 4 material with the best of intelligent and stylish US programming; while Jackson took the company on a brand extension adventure into a new world of multi-platform broadcasting. It was Thompson's lot to tidy up when that strategy proved over-ambitious when the recession hit.

But Channel 4 remains robustly intelligent, brave and leftfield, despite Thompson's propensity to allow sheep-like schedulers to follow the herd into mindless lifestyle fare such as Location Location Location.

But what now? The new challenges it faces are all to do with consolidation and the fact that the media industry is run by increasingly large multinational conglomerates.

Government protection of medium-sized players such as Channel 4 is increasingly becoming a thing of the past - and indeed there has been recent talk of harsh measures such as privatisation.

What are the challenges facing the new chief executive - widely tipped to be Dawn Airey? Andy Barnes, Channel 4's sales director, argues that there continues to be a solid foundation on which to build: "We're in fantastic health," he claims. "Our programming continues to do well - it continues not only to be differentiated but to attract good numbers in terms of demographics. Our revenue share is also slightly up."

As for future directions, Barnes promises that the organisation will not be complacent. The Channel 4 family now includes three FilmFour channels and two E4 variants as well as the main brand. More 4, for an older audience, will launch later this year. One possible strategy would be to continue that brand extension process, he suggests.

He can, however, rule out an isolated merger of the sales operation, with either five or Sky. It would, he points out, involve too great a compromise in terms of the Channel 4 remit and would deliver little in return.

But Andy Jones, the joint managing director of Universal McCann, argues that continuing fragmentation of the television market, plus the growth of viewing via PVRs, poses a bigger threat to Channel 4 than to many other broadcasters.

He states: "Channel 4 will argue that the strength of the brand protects it from the effects of that - but already it's noticeable that the power of that brand is eroded in multichannel homes. The emergence of PVRs is a further challenge to the whole free-to-air broadcasting model because there is no need to watch the breaks. So, strategically, the future looks a lot more secure if you have subscription revenues. But Channel 4 has limited room for manoeuvre because of its limited remit. It's not able to launch things such as a subscription sports channel or even mass entertainment channels."

Marc Sands, the marketing director of Guardian Newspapers, says that The Guardian has been a big supporter of Channel 4 both financially and emotionally - but he does admit to being slightly worried about its future.

He says: "The irony is that it was coming back to form in the past few months before Thompson's departure. It spent a long period setting audience targets and trying to make the programming that would deliver those targets, whereas it's the sort of channel that needs to be less competitive in that respect. It needs to have the sort of structure that allows it to make the sorts of programmes it makes brilliantly. What we don't need is more of the sort of programming you find on ITV and five."

Andy Tilley, a partner at The Ingram Partnership, agrees. But he is more optimistic about the likely success of a continued brand diversification strategy. He says: "ITV and the BBC have both developed successfully in that area and there are signs that Channel 4's newer channels will deliver too. There is no reason why they shouldn't cater for different segments of the audience - as with More 4. Channel 4 launched in 1982 and there's a segment of the audience that has grown up with the channel. There's no reason why Channel 4 shouldn't recognise that."

- "Where long-term strategy is concerned, we will keep talking to interested parties such as the Treasury and listen to what politicians and opinion formers have to say. It wouldn't be clever if in four or six years we got into a situation we hadn't been fully prepared for." - Andy Barnes sales director, Channel 4

- "The world has changed since Channel 4 was launched in the early 80s. You have to ask whether there's a requirement any more for a commercial channel with half a public service role. So yes, in the longer term, privatisation and merger may well be on the agenda." - Andy Jones joint managing director, Universal McCann

- "You have to be slightly concerned.The new chief executive must understand that programming has to come first and if commercial considerations are given too high a priority, that could be a real problem. From our point of view, privatisation would be horrendous." - Marc Sands marketing director, Guardian Newspapers

- "It's in pretty good shape but too much of a focus on the business and financial side of things would not be ideal - that will only ensure that it becomes more like everybody else. We need differentiation in TV. It must continue its maverick approach to programming." - Andy Tilley partner, The Ingram Partnership.