Media Headliner: 'There's no chance of Channel 4 playing it safe'

Channel 4's Kevin Lygo is in bullish mood, maintaining that the broadcaster will continue to take risks, Alasdair Reid writes.

We encounter Kevin Lygo in an irrepressibly buoyant mood. Put it to him that these haven't exactly been the happiest few months in the broadcaster's history and he responds with robust good humour. Actually, he counters, you could argue that it is enjoying something of a golden age.

"We are Channel of the Year (recognised as such at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 2006)," he points out. "We've won more awards (recently) than any other channel and we've just won an Oscar for The Last King of Scotland. This is a positive time for Channel 4 at a time when TV in general has been under such scrutiny."

He's particularly tickled, for instance, that Al Gore, the renowned eco-warrior, seems so intimately aware of Channel 4's recent climate change polemic, The Great Global Warming Swindle, and has been responding to its conclusions in recent interviews.

Yes, Lygo is in buoyant mood, but he's also, noticeably, relaxed. Suitably so, you might argue. In a year seemingly littered by anniversaries and landmarks, it's perhaps appropriate that Lygo has entered a new phase of his career. He will be 50 in September; Channel 4, the great love of his working life, will be 25 in November; and five, the mistress with which he had a racy, but ultimately unsatisfying, affair, has just celebrated its first decade.

So what better time could there be for him to move upstairs in the hierarchy? With the arrival of Julian Bellamy, currently the controller of BBC3, to take the reins at Channel 4's flagship channel, Lygo will make the step up to become the group's director of television and content, with the controllers of individual channels reporting to him. That includes Bellamy, plus Danny Cohen, the head of E4, and Peter Dale, the head of More 4.

The flagship channel is where the action is, however, and there's no doubting who the new programming star is within the organisation. These situations tend to favour the young pretender. Bellamy will no doubt receive all the credit and plaudits for daring successes, while Lygo will have to carry the can for embarrassing mishaps such as the racism row which surrounded Celebrity Big Brother this year.

Such is the prerogative of seniority. However, it's odd to consider that, had events played out rather differently, Lygo might have been the one about to embark on the most turbulent and challenging phase of his entire career.

Back in October 2006, as speculation on the succession at ITV went into overdrive, Lygo was being touted around town as one half of a possible new ITV management "dream team" with the former Ofcom boss, Stephen Carter.

Lygo, however, denies that he received any approach whatsoever. He confesses that it was all rather surreal reading some of the wilder, more fanciful, reports. It must also have been, to say the least, somewhat startling to see some of the bitching and backbiting that was accompanying all the speculation: one rival producer, for instance, was quoted in the press questioning the pedigree of a programming boss whose channel relies on only two sure-fire hits, Big Brother and Deal or No Deal. Lygo, who is usually revered in the TV business as something of a national treasure, rarely suffers such indignities.

In the end, though, it just wasn't meant to be. The ITV white-knuckle ride failed to materialise. Instead, Lygo buckled down at Channel 4. And hardly had the Christmas decorations been stowed away than Jade Goody and her somewhat foul mouth hoved into view.

As hostile forces gathered, Lygo's boss, the chief executive, Andy Duncan, came out fighting in defence of Channel 4's recent track record on programming; but, almost unaccountably, as the months have rolled on, there's been a somewhat subdued and introverted mood on the programming front.

Most notably, in the wake of the Celebrity Big Brother row, the decision was taken to cancel a planned programming strand that was dubbed "Wank Week", including coverage of the epic Wankathon event that was held in London last year. Not so long ago, it wouldn't have been hard to find critics prepared to argue that, on Channel 4, every week was "Wank Week".

But, with media agencies warning that ad money will be pulled from Big Brother if there's a repeat of the nastier forms of controversy that it has courted in recent years, it's almost inevitable that Lygo (and indeed Bellamy when he arrives) will be cautious.

Not so, Lygo once again counters. "There's no chance of Channel 4 playing it safe," he insists. "What people sometimes don't realise is that it is an attitudinal approach that Channel 4 takes, rather than the subject matter itself.

"The BBC, for instance, tends to adopt a more status quo approach to everything and tends not to challenge authority. Channel 4 is rather more sceptical."

The time to assess the truth of that one will probably be mid-summer, when Big Brother 8 has been on our screens for a few weeks. By which time, we'll have more of a steer on Bellamy, too. But if you were being cynical, you might argue that he's hardly likely to be a complete revelation.

After all, he's Lygo's protege. He became Channel 4's current affairs editor in 1998, and took on increasing responsibilities (he was the commissioning editor responsible for nurturing Big Brother, for instance) until his departure for BBC3 in November 2003. Lygo was his senior colleague (and often his boss) for all but two of those years (2001 to 2003) when he was at five.

Of course, Lygo could, in fact, be easing himself out slowly - and a senior ITV role might still be on the agenda, whatever he says to the contrary. But Bellamy, you suspect, would struggle to impose a distinctive mark on the organisation with his long-term mentor looking over his shoulder.

Lygo just laughs at this. In actual fact, he says, we can rely on Bellamy being an even stronger force, thanks to his BBC excursion: "He worked here for seven years, then he's gone away and had a chance to view Channel 4 from a distance and really get a perspective on what makes its culture so distinctive. We do get on well, there's no secret in that - that's why I wanted him back. But it's also true that he did have a life before we met."