Media Headliner: He's got the vision - but will he get the funding?

Channel 4's chief executive has set out his ambitions for the broadcaster, but can he convince government?

Andy Duncan is in one of his irrepressibly optimistic moods. Not, you suspect, that the Channel 4 chief executive operates on any other setting. He leaves no room for doubt or, indeed, reflection. He's just a very enthusiastic chap.

It's hard to keep a sense of perspective when dealing with this force of nature, and it's only afterwards that you wonder whether he's managed, yet again, to get a little ahead of himself. Because we're on familiar territory with Duncan here - and the rhetoric sounds much the same, too.

A couple of weeks ago, he launched a lobbying initiative designed to put the future of Channel 4 back on the political agenda. This is just one more round in a campaign that began mere days after he took the helm at Channel 4 back in July 2004 - a campaign noted for its transparent attempts to browbeat and bounce the media marketplace into accepting the Duncan analysis of Channel 4's place in the broadcasting sphere.

This time, Duncan says, it's different. This time, the argument about the channel's funding model has been won. "I think it's clear that the debate has moved on," he says. "There's an acknowledgement that there is a problem here, and an acknowledgement that this is a problem worth solving. Now we've moved on to how to solve it."

Well, perhaps. Three years ago, in January 2005, Duncan made similarly conclusive noises - only to be disappointed when an Ofcom report stopped well short of offering the sort of funding safety net he was seeking. Regular lobbying since has failed to produce hard and fast results.

This time out, however, we're witnessing Duncan's biggest push yet - backing a new version of the existing proposal. The central plank is a document entitled Next on 4, which Channel 4 describes as an "ambitious blueprint" for its future. It's a restatement of Channel 4's public-service role in the digital, socially networked age.

It is vital, Duncan says, that Channel 4 continues to nurture new talent and original ideas, champions alternative voices and fresh perspectives, challenges people to see the world differently and inspires people to seek change in their lives. To prove just how seriously the channel takes these commitments, he has announced a fund that will allow young people to make programming at a regional level across the UK.

He's also making an annual commitment to broadcasting more new programmes in peaktime than any other public-service broadcaster; and will broadcast the equivalent of at least one new documentary in peaktime each weekday - a minimum of 260 hours across the year.

All very laudable. But here's the familiar part - in exchange, Channel 4 wants public money to meet what it has identified as a growing shortfall in funding. With audiences fragmenting and the commercial marketplace coming under ever greater pressures, Channel 4 will not be able to fund itself by advertising revenues alone for very much longer. Duncan could now be looking for £150 million a year, either from the licence fee or from direct taxation.

Duncan argues that his arguments are not only sound (and likely to succeed), but should recommend themselves very highly indeed to the advertising community. It is in advertisers' interests, he suggests, that Channel 4 remains a commercial broadcaster with a strong public-service ethos.

He explains: " This is unambiguously good for advertisers. Advertisers have always liked the fact that Channel 4 offers a distinctive, well-branded proposition that is particularly strong where upmarket and younger audiences are concerned. Our strength is the clarity and distinctiveness of our proposition. And the reality is that (thanks to the fact that it doesn't have to pay for its broadcasting spectrum) Channel 4 has always been subsidised. We just want to see that continue. But we will continue to be 85 per cent self-funded, which means we will have to be as commercially entrepreneurial as we've always been."

And, of course, it's true that Duncan perhaps understands advertisers' interests more than any other boss in the history of British television. After all, this is a man who worked his way up through the marketing ranks at Unilever before jumping ship for the BBC, where he took a large part of the credit for getting Freeview off the ground. And according to some, his lack of programming background is one of the reasons he's so focused on other more structural and strategic matters.

The bottom line here, he says, is the question of whether advertisers want yet another bland commercial channel or something truly distinctive. But, as you'd expect, he leaves you in no doubt about whether there's a genuine choice here at all.

You could argue that despite Duncan's conviction, an increased subsidy for Channel 4 is bound to prove a very hot political potato indeed. The BBC, especially, will be lobbying to ensure Channel 4 doesn't get to eat any of its lunch.

Duncan dismisses such talk, suggesting that a forthcoming Ofcom report will force the Government to outline half-a-dozen Channel 4 funding proposals for debate.

We'll see. But as the years go by, it's becoming clear not only that Duncan is absolutely committed to an all-or-nothing line here, but that if he doesn't get what he wants, some sort of confrontation will become inevitable. Advertisers will clearly hope it doesn't come to that. It could get messy.

In the meantime, though, there's absolutely no room for compromise when Duncan's around. He concludes: "I think advertisers appreciate what's at stake here. Next on 4 emphasises what a big step forward we're proposing. And from an advertiser point of view, a solution to the funding (problem) will underpin our ability to spend money on programming - especially comedy and drama and new talent."