MICHAEL JACKSON: CHANNEL 4’S CHAMPION - After a year as chief executive, how has Michael Jackson brought his quiet passion to bear on Channel 4? Claire Beale investigates

The first things you notice about Michael Jackson are what he’s not: big, imposing, flamboyant, Michael Grade.

The first things you notice about Michael Jackson are what he’s

not: big, imposing, flamboyant, Michael Grade.

He slips into his office unobserved - we’ve taken it over with wires,

tripods, coffee cups and tape recorders - a slender, almost fragile

figure, coiffured and black-clad. Channel 4’s chief executive.

And he’s nice, damn it. He’s friendly, approachable, interested and


He even asks us where we would like him to sit. In his office. Where’s

the dazzle, the braces, the star quality you expect from a media chief

executive, the patter, the sell, the bluff and bluster?

Especially from Channel 4 - TV that’s as in-yer-face as you can get.

Instead, it’s soon clear that Jackson’s style is all about thoughtful

passion, belief and vision. Exactly the sort of values you want Channel

4 to represent, in fact. A year since his appointment, Jackson may not

be the most obvious of figureheads but he’s already brought his blend of

quiet passion to bear on a channel that needs it more than ever.

Jackson’s predecessor, Michael Grade, embodied Channel 4 and did a

brilliant job of putting the channel on the media map, fighting off

privatisation and killing the crippling funding formula that made

Channel 4’s profits flow into ITV’s coffers. But, with many of the

fundamental battles fought and won, Channel 4 needed to move on and

reaffirm its identity for the digital age.

Among a beauty parade of sterling candidates for Grade’s replacement -

rumoured to have included Channel 5’s chief, David Elstein, Melvyn Bragg

and BBC Worldwide’s Bob Phillis - Jackson seemed one of the least likely

prospects. As the BBC’s director of TV and controller of BBC 1, Jackson

was the corporation’s golden boy, tipped to be a future


But his unerring ability to spot winning programmes, his previous

successes at BBC 2 (prompting Channel 4 to label him a ’copycat

criminal’) and his flair for imbuing a real identity and feeling of

self-belief into his TV work singled him out. And the chance to take

Channel 4 forward in the digital age proved too much of a temptation for

Jackson. It was time for something new.

’The interesting thing about Channel 4 when I arrived was that everyone

was ready for change, wanting to move on and expand,’ Jackson


’The channel maybe hadn’t taken the next turn of the wheel, it was

resting on its laurels slightly. I was fortunate enough to arrive when

it was intrinsically time to have another look at everything.’

Jackson sees himself as ’the enemy of complacency’ and first on his list

was staff. He wasted no time bringing in star names such as Gub Neal

from Granada as senior commissioning editor of television drama, Kevin

Lygo from the BBC as head of entertainment, and Steve Hewlett, editor of

Panorama, as Channel 4’s head of documentaries and features. As Jackson

sees it, ’it’s very much about getting people who are really

competitive, both for audiences and for quality, otherwise we’re not

going to have the programmes that are going to drive Channel 4


Those programmes are also under scrutiny. ’I’m trying to rethink every

part of the schedule. We’ve looked at Channel 4 News (which has been

revamped), we’ve got Denise and Johnny installed at the Big Breakfast,

we’ve looked at the ’happy hour’, moving Late Lunch to tea time. Now we

need to look at the 8 to 9 o’clock slot. Brookside is not as strong as

it used to be and we need to think seriously about the forward arc of

that programme.’

The 9 to 11pm slot is also a crucial one for a channel that has built

its reputation around this segment of its schedule. Jackson describes it

as ’our shop window. It’s what they call ’watercooler television’ in the

US, those shows you gather round and talk about at work the next day.’

Channel 4, he says, needs more talked-about shows in this slot, while

later, after 11pm, ’people expect an attitude’. At weekends, Jackson

acknowledges the need to ’create a kind of zone that people want to come


But this is not just about careful scheduling, it’s about a fundamental

reappraisal of commissioning, Jackson says. ’These days, TV is about a

few big programmes that sum up a channel. On Channel 4 it’s the Big

Breakfast and Brookside, but it’s also Friends and ER, and we need more

British shows that reflect our identity. They need to be cutting-edge,

different, another way of looking at the world. Our job is to increase

the number of programmes that people think of as ’Channel 4


Jackson identifies the need to improve the channel’s entertainment

offering, ’We’ve got some good shows, Harry Hill, TFI Friday, Mark

Thomas, but we need more,’ and its drama, ’we want to increase the range

and amount of drama. I’d like to see an hour a week of original drama

over and above Brookside.’

As for finding the money to keep up its reputation for snaffling the

best US shows when bidding wars are sending prices spiralling, Jackson

admits it won’t be easy; Sky has already got its hands on Friends and

ER. ’But there’s a difference between bidding for something that’s

already successful and spotting a success early. One of the things that

should mark out Channel 4 is being the channel that brings you things


Some of the best cable channels in the US are not about money but


The challenge is not money, it’s about who you are and what you’ve got

to say.’

Jackson believes the revised licence the Independent Television

Commission recently bestowed will help drive improvements. The licence

extends Channel 4’s public service commitments and includes new

stipulations on multi-cultural and educational programming, original

commissions, investment in films and requirements for diversity in the

peak-time schedule. ’It’s about us being more distinctive, more British,

more inclusive - the things that are going make us more


Even so, life is getting tougher down at the channel’s headquarters on

Horseferry Road. Digital satellite, digital cable and digital

terrestrial are all threatening new channels this year, Channel 4 even

has its own plans for new digital services. Against this backdrop,

Channel 4 steadily lost audience share last year, from 10.8 per cent to

10.4 per cent by the fourth quarter - its lowest for three years. What

is the prospect of an upturn in an increasingly fragmented market?

’It is going to be difficult to increase our share,’ Jackson nods. ’But

I think we can keep our position in the market, relatively speaking. In

other words, we can be a significant part of everybody’s television

experience. Not all of the time, but some of the time.

’We appreciate that it is a much more competitive market now, that other

people have their tanks on our lawns and that we can’t rest on our


But we have the huge benefit of a really strong brand and a real

relationship with an audience, and we are determined it should be a very

active relationship.

That means building programmes that are genuinely part of people’s

lives, they talk about them, care about them.’

In that sense, Jackson acknowledges that much has already been achieved

to secure Channel 4’s future in the digital age. The channel has already

carved out an incredibly strong brand identity that will prove to be a

genuine safety net.

It’s an identity, too, which will have increasing appeal, Jackson


’We’re about talking to people who are not just young but are young in

spirit - and that’s a lot of people. So, in that sense, I am optimistic

about the future of Channel 4 because I think people today are more

naturally Channel 4 viewers than ever before.’ At the same time, Channel

4’s minority positioning relative to the mainstream ITV has been a good

discipline for survival in a fragmented market. ’Channel 4 represents

something about the future, not the past, in the sense that this is now

the age of the so-called minority channel.’

All of which means that Jackson faces the digital future with, well, if

not relish, certainly not trepidation. ’We are faced with a lot of

opportunities in terms of digital television and also in terms of the

Internet, publishing, merchandising - all manner of activities where you

take the essential brand values of the channel and its relationship with

its audience and take them forward. That is the focus of a lot of our

thinking at the moment.’

The channel has already laid plans for a number of digital services but

Jackson is determined they must be a natural extension, not a

diversification, of the channel. ’The new TV age will only be of value

to Channel 4 if we take our core values into the new world. If we try to

be something we’re not, that is where we’ll come a cropper.’ Hence there

are plans for movies and racing channels, building on Channel 4’s track

record in these areas but also building on its experience of being

unique and standing out from the pack. ’When you’re wandering around

that digital dial, what’s going to make you stop and watch? It’s going

to be something that looks different and has a different sensibility -

that is what we are good at.’

As the man who brought BBC 2 head-to-head with its commercial rivals,

Jackson knows all about scrapping over audiences - but at Channel 4 that

means embracing marketing and advertising sales in order to satisfy the

channel’s advertising customers. Jackson recruited Channel 5’s marketing

director, David Brooke, as his marketing supremo at the end of last year

and wasted no time developing a close - although sometimes challenging -

relationship with his own sales team, according to the sales director,

Andy Barnes.

Jackson believes strongly that sales and programming must work hand in

hand. ’I’m really opposed to the idea that there is something called

programming and something called sales and that they have a big Chinese

wall between them. I’m all about knocking the walls down. I don’t even

know what a Chinese wall looks like, now I come to think about it. The

whole point about Channel 4 is that it’s been a cultural success and a

commercial success and I don’t think it could have been one without the


Gone are the days when Channel 4’s sales teams used to have to fight for

centre breaks in serious programmes, or had to struggle against precious

editorial teams over innocuous sponsorships. Jackson welcomes sales

people sitting in on scheduling meetings and promises to be accessible

and responsive to the advertising community. ’There are some things we

do that advertisers are not very engaged by, but we cleave to those

because we believe them to be important and we’ll carry on protecting

them. But those less commercially popular aspects of our schedule are

sustained by the commercial success of other things we do. You can’t

separate the two.’

So it’s 12 months since his appointment and Jackson is clearly well down

the road to ensuring that those successes - both cultural and commercial

- will continue to mark out Channel 4 well into the digital age.