Duncan in right place at right time

Frankly, Andy Duncan could not have chosen a better time to jump ship as director of marketing at the BBC.

While it would be unfair (and quite possibly untrue) to assert that all his successes there would be behind him, there is no doubt that the climate for those holding a commercial portfolio at the BBC has now become a lot chillier. During his brief tenure as Channel 4 chief executive, incoming BBC director-general Mark Thompson rapidly transformed himself into an effective cost-cutter. That ruthless reputation is likely to be reinforced at the BBC by the political requirements of winning the ‘public service’ debate on terms that will facilitate charter renewal. In the imminent firing line will be quite a bit of the digital and interactive heritage that Duncan championed. Further ahead – who knows? – BBC Worldwide, the avowedly commercial arm of the corporation, may become a casualty. Certainly the very fact the idea has been floated, and that its chief executive did not make it to the top table in a recent reshuffle, does not bode well: Rupert Gavin could already be seeking another job.

Conversely, though we may have been momentarily taken aback by the boldness of appointing a man with no programme or scheduling experience as its new chief executive, Duncan’s marketing skills are sorely needed at Channel 4. This is a commercial television station which could easily lose its way in the multimedia, multichannel age unless someone takes a firm grip of its chaotic positioning. True, Channel 4 has clung on to a 20 per cent share of total advertising revenue over the past three years, but impacts are in long-term decline. This at a time when C4 faces a critical juncture in its programming. Bankers, such as Friends, Sex and the City and Big Brother, have come, or are coming, to an end. Though Kevin Lygo is renowned for his deft programme skills, he faces a harsh challenge in producing follow-up ‘edgy, innovative’ product that will haul in the viewer; some would argue that the emollient Duncan faces an equally harsh task in managing the wilful Lygo, though that remains to be seen.

As if that were not enough, Duncan must create order in Channel 4’s sprawling digital estate. This, on the evidence of his BBC record, he is well equipped to do. Which is just as well, because C4’s future good fortune is likely to rely increasingly on revenues extracted not only from subscription ventures like E4, but non-subscription based channels such as More 4, which is soon to be launched. Freeview, Duncan’s iconic achievement at the BBC, will stand him in good stead for the development of the latter category. He was one of the first to appreciate that low-revenue paid-for channels can be transmuted into free-to-air programmes, whose greatly enhanced audience may attract an advertising income greatly exceeding any subscription stream.

Finally, there are few more important issues for Channel 4 than its future legal and corporate status. Ironically, precisely because of his classic marketing rather than public service background, there is no one better placed than Duncan to fend off the more extreme proposals for a merger with Five, or privatisation (which he is definitely against), and to safeguard the channel’s unique blend of public service and commercial nous.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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