Channel 4’s boardroom must have resembled an operating theatre in an episode of hit hospital drama ER, last week.
Casualties ranged from sales and marketing director Stewart Butterfield and chairman Sir Michael Bishop to director of programmes John Willis and head of drama Peter Ansorge. Although some voluntarily resigned, some were pushed – in Bishop’s case his departure was imposed by the new Government as a reward for supporting the Conservative Party.
And almost as quickly as the departures were announced, Jackson confirmed their replacements in the production departments and promoted Butterfield’s deputy, Andy Barnes, to the top marketing and sales position.
The unexpected public bloodletting dented the management’s largely untarnished image as a confident organisation enjoying unprecedented success in the TV market.
The problem, says one C4 source, is that beneath the comfortable veneer, there is a very real fear that the channel has run out of steam.
“It all began two years ago,” says the source, “when BBC2 began copying C4’s programming formula.”
BBC2’s renovation had begun under Alan Yentob and was, ironically, continued by Michael Jackson, who started to introduce stripped and themed programming aimed at C4’s light-viewing audience. Its arts programmes became more mainstream and new “thirtysomething” programmes were introduced.
Though Grade and Butterfield had scored successes in growing audiences, Grade in particular became obsessed with the funding formula. C4 started getting involved in “luvvie” projects such as spending 100m over four years to produce films which would only be shown once on the channel itself. It sacrificed innovation for a tried-and-tested formula of buying in US imports and sticking to established writers such as Alan Bleasdale.
In April, the ITC attacked C4 for running too many peak-time repeats. Optimedia managing director Simon Mathews says C4 has bought some poor sitcoms recently and had some misses in home-grown shows, such as The Girlie Show and Bleasdale’s Melissa.
It has also been losing key audiences, for example children. A report earlier this year by Childwise Winter Monitor 1996/97, pointed out that last year the percentage of children watching the Big Breakfast fell from 42 to 27 per cent.
A C4 spokesman says Big Breakfast’s relaunch last autumn with new presenters did not succeed, but the ratings have improved since January. “The Big Breakfast’s ratings achieved four years ago were artificially high because of the fact that GMTV got it so badly wrong.”
However, Mathews says that it still needs to make radical improvements in the Big Breakfast’s format rather than merely offering sexier presenters to bolster ratings.
JWT’s broadcast director Bill Barker also says the channel has to make some drastic changes to the early peak, in particular C4 News. “It is a hole in C4’s schedule. It is very worthy but not performing as it should,” he says, “C4 ought to shorten and move it rather than wait for ITV to move News at Ten.”
However, Barnes says the channel will not be rushed into a change in the timing of C4 News if ITV decides to move News at Ten to a 7.30pm slot. “We are not going to be pushed into a decision; we will do it on our own terms,” he says.
However, it is in C4’s light-viewer homeland of dramas and comedy shows that it has proved most vulnerable to BBC2. In particular BBC2’s light-viewer cult show, This Life, is pulling significant audiences from C4.
A C4 spokesman says: “This Life is a bloody good show. Jackson initiated it and one of the things that the new team will be looking at is producing winning shows like it.”
He adds that C4 has to rethink the whole way its dramas have been conceived, acknowledging difficulties with Melissa.
These programming and scheduling issues can be resolved fairly rapidly. However, there is a need to reassess the channel’s strategic direction.
Marco Rimini, vice-chairman of CIA Medianetwork, says that Jackson will give others more power over the commercial sales than Grade did. “C4 did well in improving its share of audience in recent years but there is no way it can continue to manage that kind of increase each year. It may need to push other revenue areas, such as sponsorship, if it is to keep revenues up.”
Butterfield had already begun the process of trying to generate extra income, though with limited success. David Charlesworth, head of sponsorship, has managed to sign an important deal with Wella for Friends sponsorship and other deals, such as with Eurostar for Tour de France. However, TFI Friday, ER and Eurotrash remain elusive prospects for a deal.
Charlesworth is currently selling the entire C4 sports programming to a single sponsor as part of an innovative deal for next year to attract sponsors (MW May 21).
Barnes also plans to learn lessons from the BBC. “We need to look more closely at how we can make more of the C4 brand and C4 programmes,” he says. “I want to broad-en the base of our revenue. We will look for more ways to generate income along similar lines to BBC Worldwide, extending C4 brands into other areas.”
However, this is an easier strategy for the BBC to pursue because it has much more home-grown programming than C4, such as Top Gear, Gardener’s World and The Clothes Show.
Hopefully the ER-like rapidity with which C4 made its changes will produce the kind of home-grown programmes that can be more fully commercially exploited. Otherwise more radical surgery may be needed in the future.