Publishers won’t sit on the fence over C4’s homes extension plan

Channel 4, like the BBC, has ambitious multi-platform plans that have created uproar among its commercial rivals. Now a magazine launch from the broadcaster will add publishers to the throng

Is there no limit to Channel 4’s ambitions, as it moves from being a television company to a multi-platform, multi-media conglomerate? Last month I noted its audacious plan to move into public-service radio, bidding for a digital licence to challenge BBC Radio in the areas of news, current affairs, comedy and entertainment. Now it’s making another move into “old media” with the launch of the first 4-branded magazine.

All this on top of the first Channel 4 podcast, the digital TV channels E4 and More4, the new FourDocs channel on the internet, and the relaunch – in July – of FilmFour as a free-to-air, advertising-funded channel.

Next month it launches 4homes, a monthly magazine covering areas such as interiors, gardens, furniture and trends, and a healthy lifestyle. In the past, Channel 4 has licensed some of its programmes for magazines, including Grand Designs and A Place in the Sun, but this will be its first fully-supported magazine, capitalising on the channel’s own brand.

Channel 4 new business director Rod Henwood says/ “The magazine 4homes will reflect Channel 4’s unique character and style – witty, modern and not too serious-minded. We’re aiming to re-invigorate the homes sector with a magazine that is opinionated, unconventional, sexy and drop-dead stylish.”

4homes will feature well-known Channel 4 presenters such as Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs and Naomi Cleaver of Honey I Ruined the House. It’s being published by Media 10, the publisher of Grand Designs magazine, which will also handle the advertising sales. The launch issue, out on March 2, will have a print run of 250,000, and aims to establish a settle-down circulation of 70,000 after 12 months.

Channel 4 magazines publisher Fergus Campbell says: “There hasn’t been a significant launch in the homes sector for ten years, and this area of publishing has been losing sales. We believe we can change that by bringing a new tone to the market. C4 almost ‘owns’ the homes genre on TV. People trust its treatment of property, homes, design and gardening.”

Campbell joined Channel 4 five months ago, after five years at BBC Worldwide, where he worked on Top Gear and other sports magazines. His previous employers would no doubt challenge his suggestion that Channel 4 almost ‘owns’ the homes and gardens sector but, hey, this is a competitive commercial world. What is intriguing is that it’s the major public service broadcasters – the BBC and Channel 4 – that are becoming more competitive, and facing growing criticism from commercial companies as a result.

The BBC has been under fire from its rivals in radio, magazines and the online world for years. They are still lobbying for greater restrictions on the corporation’s commercial activities. Now Channel 4 is arousing similar sensitivities, following its remarkable recent run in terms of ratings and advertising revenue. The success of Celebrity Big Brother last month cemented its reputation as the channel with an armlock on the under-35 audience beloved of advertisers. But the snapping up of Paul O’Grady’s daytime show, and the arrival of Des Lynam and Noel Edmonds in the afternoon alongside Richard and Judy demonstrate that Channel 4 has its tanks firmly on ITV’s lawn in aiming for a broader audience.

ITV’s former director of programmes David Liddiment applauds Channel 4’s audacity, but says it makes commercial rather than public service sense. “With this determined move into mainstream entertainment, and its big new push into regular ‘event’ drama, Channel 4 is in danger of stealing ITV’s clothes – and making a better job of it,” he writes in his Guardian column. “What next, Ant and Dec [on Channel 4]?” he asks. “The question is,” he goes on, “does all this commercial muscle and hustle work against C4 as it tries to convince Ofcom and the Government that it may need public support – in cash and in kind – nearer digital switchover, when advertising revenues are in decline?”

Advertisers too are wary of Channel 4’s growing commercial strength. “How C4 became television’s Big Bully” ran a headline in the Observer, quoting an anonymous advertising buyer who described the channel as “the biggest bullies on the block” in negotiations.

And last month, at the Oxford Media Convention, Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan was quick to deny he was turning the channel into a “mini-me BBC”. The term was coined, provocatively, by John McVey, the chief executive of the independent producers’ association, PACT. Channel 4 and PACT are locked in heated negotiations over the new media rights to Channel 4-commissioned shows.

Channel 4’s move into magazines could arouse similar sensitivities. In its relationship with independent producers, there is a fine line to be drawn between the “4homes” brand and the brands of other homes and gardens programmes that will be ‘lending’ their star hosts to the 4homes venture.

Fergus Campbell stresses that 4homes will be featuring Kevin McCloud as a personality, not using his Grand Designs programme as a brand. “The intellectual property of the programmes lies with the producer, and this is clearly laid out in our commissioning agreement,” he says. No doubt PACT will be reading the first issue from cover to cover.â¢

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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