How could the head of FilmFour, Channel 4’s new cable, satellite and digital TV channel, conceivably be more powerful than the controller of BBC1 or, indeed, the chief executive of ITV? The suggestion seems all the more preposterous when we learn its origin: none other than the Power List, an analysis of the 300 most powerful people in Britain sponsored by The Observer and, yes, Channel 4.
But then again, how absurd is it? After all, C4’s new top team has shown remarkable dexterity in navigating what, as its rivals at the BBC and ITV would readily concede, are increasingly treacherous broadcast rapids.
Let’s look at the record for a minute. Last February, C4 emerged triumphantly from an ITC review. It had preserved its public service remit, sloughed off the onerous funding formula – pocketing an extra 90m a year which previously filled the ITV coffers – and got off with a pretty light quid pro-quo. A newly clarified remit called for greater sensitivity to minority tastes and more originally commissioned programmes.
Who, least of all the BBC, would have guessed how handy that clarified remit would become. Of course, C4’s successful pitch for the BBC’s cricket coverage depended on a number of factors: a higher bid and a slick presentation by C4’s cricket-mad marketing chief David Brook among them. Crucially, however, Brook had played on the ‘Commonwealth links’ of cricket and carefully juxtaposed English cricket chief Lord MacLaurin’s preoccupation with rejuvenating the game against C4’s youthful viewing profile.
But it isn’t just a question of bowling out the BBC. C4 has shown a sureness of timing in launching FilmFour (films being one of C4’s strengths) and is now having the audacity to challenge ITV in its heartland, drama. Until this year, C4 has not had the resources to provide serious competition in what is the most expensive of programme stakes. But a sizeable chunk of the 90m saved (probably 10m a year) will reinforce the traditional drama budget and, incidentally, go a long way to satisfying the second condition of C4’s revised remit.
The effects of C4’s aggressive marketing under its new chief executive Michael Jackson are paying off. C4 viewing figures are still going up. Contrast this performance with ITV, which is in danger of missing its peak-time target this year.
We can expect more where that has come from. Jackson has embarked on an ambitious programme of poaching broadcast talent wherever he can find it. Brook (from Channel 5) was an early acquisition; but Gub Neal (Cracker, Granada TV) as the new head of drama and Sophie McLauglin, heisted only this week from the BBC as head of advertising, serve as more recent examples. Next year C4 says it will be doubling its ad budget to over 10m…
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