Channel 4’s chief executive Andy Duncan admitted last Friday on the BBC’s Today programme that the Celebrity Big Brother race row had led to some short-term ‘reputational damage’.
But a poll commissioned by PRWeek at the height of last week’s controversy over the screening of Diana: The Witnesses in the Tunnel suggests that the public’s increasingly negative view of the channel may be longer lasting.
A vast majority of the 1,070 people who took part in the online survey – 75 per cent – said Channel 4 was wrong to screen photos of a dying Diana, even with her face obscured (see graph).
Fallout from the publicity surrounding the programme saw the channel’s management accused of ignoring Princes William and Harry’s wishes (see graph) and resulted in 48 per cent of people saying the broadcaster ‘acts irresponsibly’. This view of Channel 4 acting irresponsibly rose to 78 per cent when people were asked how they felt it behaved during the Celebrity Big Brother row.
Indeed, the survey results indicate that the Big Brother brand is irreparably damaged. 77 per cent of people think BB is ‘past its sell-by date’. That 91 per cent of the over-55s think this is perhaps not surprising; what will worry Channel 4 and BB maker Endemol more is that a clear majority (65 per cent) of its 16 to 24-year-old core target audience also thinks so.
The net effect of the poor publicity is that 75 per cent of people now feel the channel should not be funded by public money – for which Duncan had been lobbying. With rumours that Gordon Brown may go to the opposite extreme and privatise Channel 4, its worsening reputation can only be bad news for any attempt to put a financial value on the broadcaster.
Analysis 1: the PR professional’s view
Lucy Goodwin (l), freelance consultant and former PR manager for ITV News, ITN: Channel 4 is in danger of overplaying its hand as it again found itself embroiled in a race row, just days after the controversy surrounding the Princess Diana documentary.
While all the column inches may have been good for viewing figures, Channel 4 needs to ask itself whether the ratings gains are a Pyrrhic victory.
PRWeek’s survey shows that 48 per cent of respondents think Channel 4 acts irresponsibly, and what may have looked like a series of PR coups now looks like backfiring.
One race row may be unfortunate, two is beginning to look like carelessness.
Compound it further by confusing what interests the public with the public interest in the Diana documentary, and Channel 4 begins to show a track record in poor judgement.
For a broadcaster with a public service remit, subsidised by the taxpayer, this does not play well, as the PRWeek survey shows only too clearly.
Analysis 2: the brand expert’s view
Stephen Cheliotis (r), chairman, Superbrands Councils (UK): The Big Brother scandals and Diana photo controversies are deemed a threat to the Channel 4 brand; they shouldn’t be– recall the furore when C4 aired the Last Temptation of Christ or even The Word? C4 and controversy go hand in hand.
Criticism of a progressive, creative brand that takes risks should be expected; C4 polarises opinion, creating advocates and detractors in equal measure, rousing or alienating audiences.
The media loves a scandal and has reacted in its usual overzealous manner, yet C4 is still highly respected. The Superbrands Council consistently votes it among the top 50 UK brands; it improved its ranking this year and, while ranked lower in our public vote, still significantly outperforms ITV. Its sub-brands are highly regarded and add to its growing cool reputation.
C4 will never enjoy universal appeal, but it is strong with a loyal audience and considerable support. No major overhaul required; it must simply continue to balance select imports carefully with innovative home-grown programmes, not chasing controversy but not avoiding it either.