It’s already looking like annus horribilis for Andy Duncan, chief executive of Channel 4 – and we’re only into two months of it so far.
After three years of relatively calm weather during which he has successfully surfed digitalisation and steered away from the reefs of social and political controversy, he now finds himself in the eye of a storm.
Of course, the recent Celebrity Big Brother furore and an investigation into whether C4 has acted improperly over a viewers’ phone-in quiz are not to be taken lightly. Nor, on the other hand, are they exactly resignation issues. Part of C4’s programme remit is to court controversy (within certain bounds) and it has not disappointed over time. Which of us does not remember the Daily Mail-sponsored attack on ‘pornographer-in-chief’ Michael Grade when he was chief executive? And look what happened to his career.
Even so, the crisis has left C4’s top team looking a bit amateurish. These problems are compliance issues that they should have been on top of. In fairness, Duncan made a much better job of apologising (as we’ve noted previously) than his seemingly media-illiterate chairman. The danger, though, lies not in the immediate events themselves, but their ramifications. With the spotlight on him, Duncan must now persuade the Government to maintain its grant – worth up to £100m – during the turbulence of digital switchover. That’s not so easy when hordes of over-excitable politicians are baying for your blood. Less dramatically, plenty of people will now be casting a more critical eye over the Duncan record.
What conclusions should they reach? C4’s assertion that it has improved viewing share across its core channel and digital off-shoots in peak-time for adults, ABC1s and 16- to 34-year-olds (its key competence) is qualified by a Carat report showing the main channel losing overall share. It also highlights a rapid decline in some parts of C4’s audience profile. Furthermore, not a few know a smoking gun when they see it: programme content, or lack of it. There is, say the critics, too much dependence on downmarket entertainment of the BB variety; and too little successful home-grown stuff coming through. In short, Duncan is not getting as much as he might out of the undisputed talents of programmes chief Kevin Lygo.
But it’s easy to criticise, less easy to achieve. The miracle is that C4’s content and viewing figures have held up so well for so long, faced with adjusting to the complexities of the digital platform. Given that no one knows for certain where the digital revolution is leading, Duncan has been remarkably strong and confident in tackling the Big Picture, not the least attribute of a successful chief executive. Multichannel has done well, particularly in relation to young and upmarket audiences, and it was a deft stroke by Duncan to move the likes of E4, FilmFour and More4 on to the Freeview platform. Elsewhere, he is bidding to put C4 onto the digital radio map and is poised to deliver a TV broadband subscription service.
Channel 4 has always been a strange, unmanageable beast: the celebrated horse developed by a committee. Like the BBC, it is a corporation with a restrictive charter, but much less access to the public readies. And yet, it must obey market forces like any joint-stock company. True, it has no shareholders, but there are plenty of vociferous stakeholders only too ready to have a say on its remit. Any C4 chief executive faces a formidable management task, and never more so than now.
Luckily for Duncan, he should be able to get his head down for the next few months. The media arc-light has switched to a potential public interest inquiry into the much more juicy subject of Murdoch’s stake in ITV.
Stuart Smith, Editor