Has Andy Duncan managed to future-proof Channel 4?

It is nearly a year since former Unilever marketer Andy Duncan was appointed as Channel 4’s chief executive, and in that time he has made some decisive moves to shape the station’s future.

When he joined the channel, many were sceptical that a marketer with no programme-making experience could succeed in the top job. But Duncan appears to be proving the sceptics wrong.

He has reversed much of the overtly commercial strategy put in place by his predecessor, Mark Thompson, who left to become director-general of the BBC (now mired in strike action in protest at his proposed job cuts).

As one of his first moves at C4, Duncan put paid to merger discussions with Five, arguing that such a deal would push C4 towards a more commercial future and even possible privatisation. He has also revealed himself as a keen supporter of C4’s public service broadcasting role. Duncan has pushed the case for a continued public service commitment from C4 and has told Ofcom and the Government that the channel needs strong public funding to fulfil it. He is taking youth channel E4 out of its paid-for digital ghetto and putting it on the Freeview service he helped launch in his previous job as marketing director of the BBC. C4 is also launching More4 on Freeview, to target older viewers.

According to Starcom managing partner Andy Roberts, C4’s ratings have been strong under Duncan, particularly for key audiences. Between February and April this year, says Starcom, C4’s impacts among 16- to 34-year-olds were up ten per cent annually – vastly outperforming the commercial TV market as a whole, where impacts rose a mere 0.6 per cent. And impacts for 16- to 34-year-old men – a key hard-to-reach audience, since they watch little TV – were up 14.1 per cent, against 4.1 per cent for commercial TV overall. C4’s ABC1 adult figures were weaker, but still positive.

But Roberts admits it is difficult to determine which parts of this strong performance are down to Duncan.

Universal McCann head of TV Richard Oliver says Duncan may not have specific responsibility for the channel’s ratings successes of the past year, but that his consensual style has created a strong creative culture: “Kevin Lygo is the one who makes a difference. Andy Duncan has kept him on side as director of programmes and given him space. He is keeping those creative personalities happy.”

C4 sales director Andy Barnes says Duncan has an inclusive style and allows staff to put across their own points of view. He thinks the public service focus is crucial for the channel’s popularity.

According to Accenture media partner Theresa Wise, Duncan has pursued a “big picture” agenda and stamped his mark on the channel. “He has been effective in taking C4 in the direction he wants it, he has been clear in not pursuing an all-out commercial strategy,” she says.

A potential headache for Duncan is what to do should its star programme, Big Brother – which is gearing up for its sixth series – lose popularity. ITV’s latest reality show, Celebrity Love Island, has suffered poor ratings – raising the prospect of viewers turning away from reality TV. But Wise says: “At a time when a lot of reality shows fail to make the grade, Big Brother is still hugely successful.”

C4 is still loved by advertisers, as it attracts viewers who are hard to reach through other channels. Many observers believe Duncan’s groundwork should ensure the channel maintains a strong position in a future where major channels are likely to find their viewing figures chipped away by niche rivals.

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