Boys & Girls: failed to capture big viewing figures
THERE may have been furrowed brows at Channel 4's headquarters last week, when it emerged that the station had suffered the most substantial ratings losses of all the terrestrial stations in the first half of the year.
With even Big Brother failing to live up to its usual guaranteed smash-hit success, what could be next for the boys and girls at what was once the UK's most controversial and inspiring TV channel?
C4's viewing share in all TV homes in the first six months of 2003 fell below 10% for the first time since 1990 - dropping to 9.5% compared to 10.1% in January to June last year.
The station - much like all of its other terrestrial rivals, with the exception of Five - suffered due to the increasing popularity of digital TV stations, such as Sky One and MTV and, of course, its own E4 and FilmFour.
Over the past year, its share dropped from seven per cent to 6.6% in multichannel homes. Both BBC1 and ITV1's share fell by just over three per cent between the same period in multichannel homes.
Combined with recent developments - the imminent departure of head of TV Tim Gardam, the axing of Boys & Girls, the morning eyesore that is RI:SE and the relatively poor performance of the station's biggest ratings event, Big Brother - and things start to look decidedly shaky for
June Barb figures for E4 showed Big Brother, which dominates the schedule of the digital channel during the 10 weeks in the summer, was losing its appeal.
BB4 averaged a 3.5% audience share on E4 during its first full week on air - the third series last year averaged 5.1%.
Although the launch of E4 has been successful and the channel is growing its viewing share overall, its parent has abandoned its strategy of trying to break new programmes on the channel and is, instead, leveraging the power of and cross-promoting to drive more viewers to its E4 offering.
Critics could also argue that some of the channel's imports, such as ER and Sex and the City, are getting to the end of their shelf-life.
Coming through a tough year
All of these factors are the consequences of what have been a tough 12 months for the broadcaster.
Since the arrival of chief executive Mark Thompson in March last year, the company has undergone a serious purge.
Thompson implemented a series of cost-cutting measures to right the digital disappointments created by his predecessor, Michael Jackson.
This included making more than 300 staff redundant from the channel's 1,000-strong workforce and the disposal of its film production arm, Film Four.
Despite the turbulent times, few agency heads or media owners would contest the strength and continuing credibility of the C4 brand.
Urban, streetwise, intelligent and informed, the terrestrial broadcaster is infinitely trendier and arguably more in touch with youth audiences than any of its other commercial terrestrial rivals.
Despite this, the channel recently turned its attentions to what is its single biggest strength and, in April, marketing director Polly Cochrane said that the C4 brand and on-air logo was being re-examined.
"The existing logo is a bit ambient and can be rather bland. In this day and age, with so many other channels parking on our lawn, we want something that can actively promote our distinctive and competitive values," she said.
The launch of new branding for the station would make C4 the last of the commercial terrestrial TV properties to do so in the past 18 months.
The industry is very much behind C4 and although acknowledges that it has hit rough waters, wants it to succeed.
The completion of the restructuring of the broadcaster by Thompson is expected to allow him to roll up his sleeves and focus on "making trouble" with fresh programming, as promised earlier this year, and make the channel less reliant on imports, with more rating-friendly internal commissions.
MPG broadcast director Andrew Canter thinks that Thompson will pull through for the station.
He says: "I believe that Thompson has just about got to the point where his influence can be brought to bear in full. Since his arrival, he's been charged with 'turning around' the company's fortunes.
Areas in need of attention
"In my view, there are a number of areas that need attention, but, in general, Thompson's vision for the channel should see it through this tough period."
Viacom Brand Solutions managing director, Paul Curtis, agrees that Thompson is the best man for the job.
"He's injected an energy and enthusiasm into Channel 4 that was lacking before and he talks very clearly about his vision for the channel," says Curtis.
But he can't do it alone. Andy Zonfrillo, head of TV at MindShare, says: "With Gardam going, Thompson has a key person to employ in terms of programming. That person's going to be critical to the success of the
And the rumours are already flying over the possible replacement. Kevin Lygo, programme director at Five and former head of entertainment at C4, is hotly tipped to be Gardam's replacement.
Whoever gets the job, Thompson and his next programming head will have their work cut out for them. Opinions differ on where the channel needs to go next. Some feel that it needs to move back to its roots in order to pull itself back into shape.
"Channel 4 needs to go back to what it was best at, which was being controversial. The channel grew up in an environment where it was the alternative - it gave viewers something that they couldn't get elsewhere," says Canter.
MPG broadcast director Ilker Shakir says: "It does need to rediscover the energy that it had in the past."
Curtis agrees that, of late, the channel has lost its way. "What it has lacked is a real focus on what it's about," he says.
But, in some ways, the channel's
history makes recovery that much more complex.
"For the past six or seven years, Channel 4 has been anti-establishment - Labour and socialist - but now that IS the establishment, so where does it go from here? That's the difficulty for Channel 4," says Curtis.
Zonfrillo says that the need for
commercial revenue in the current advertising environment means that C4 cannot afford to take the same risks that it has in the past.
"It still needs a commercial audience - that's the bread and butter of its business," he says. "Do I want it to go back to where it was 10 years ago? No - I don't think that would be beneficial for advertisers."
One thing is for certain - all eyes will be on Thompson over the next 12 months. Things are already in the pipeline - he and Gardam outbid the BBC and Five for The Simpsons at the end of 2002 and the series is due to hit the airwaves sometime next year.
But that's just the beginning.
Shakir thinks that the next 18 months will make or break Thompson's tenancy.
"He's got the heritage, the capability and the ruthlessness to make it work - he just needs time," he says.
This article was first published on Media Week