Duncans reputation at stake in C4 crisis

Stuart%20SmithSuccessful leaders must be allowed their share of poor judgement calls as well as luck. Most famously Churchill, based on his record during the Thirties, would have been deemed a study in failure were it not for the implacable aggression of Hitler. 

The stakes at Channel 4 are not quite so high, but the principle is the same. Andy Duncan has had, on the whole, four highly successful years as chief executive. Now he has made some mistakes. The question is, will he and the media organisation he heads learn from them and emerge stronger as a result? 

Duncan can pat himself on the back for a series of Bafta and Royal Television Society awards for outstanding programmes. He has also, exploiting the experience he gained with Freeview while at the BBC, made some good calls on C4’s digital channels. 

He claims the digital portfolio of E4, More4 and Film Four, has 4% of TV audiences, the same as the BBC and ITV digital channels, despite the fact that one broadcaster is three times, and the other twice, the size of his own organisation. What is beyond doubt is that C4’s portion of advertising revenue grew from 20.4% in 2003 to 24.1% last year. And its share of all TV viewing from 10.4% to just under 12% during the same period. Whatever the future holds, Duncan can justifiably claim he has trailblazed a new path from marketing (in his case at Unilever) to media owner ceo. That bodes well for others, such as ex-PepsiCo marketer Tim Davie – now director of audio and music at the BBC – who might wish to take the same route. 

But is Duncan just a fairweather ceo? Up to this point, the worst he could be accused of was an inadequate response to the Jade Goody/Shilpa Shetty “racism” affair that brewed up on Big Brother. Now, however, he is facing an imminent and probably deep recession. And it is not clear how well he will deal with it. 

Certainly the first steps have been faltering. The recent and humiliating U-turn on Channel 4’s digital radio project is a good case in point. Sure, Duncan is right to have subordinated something costly in time and resources to the needs of the core brand. But this particular Waterloo has been looming for some time; Duncan’s reluctance to recognise it has made the eventual retreat all the more ignominious. 

Of course, axing 4 Digital Group is only one of a series of costcutting measures Duncan has had to implement at C4. Marketing is being heavily pounded, as we can judge from the abrupt exit of marketing director Polly Cochrane and 4Creative managing director Richard Burdett. It’s a huge gamble for an organisation which has always prided itself on its slick branding. Ditto for cuts on the programme side. The longer the recession goes on, the more septicaemic C4’s self-inflicted wounds could become. The pay-off is that Duncan’s serious stewardship through crisis finally convinces the Government of C4’s fixity of public service purpose. The prize would be a £150m Government subsidy of the organisation’s funding gap, preferably sourced by top-slicing the BBC’s licence fee. 

But it’s a high risk strategy. Then again, taking calculated risks is what leadership is about. 

Stuart Smith, Editor 

Cover story, page 20; Analysis, page 14

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