MEDIA: Less PR is more where change is concerned

We’re in the middle of such a glut of new channel launches, that it is all too easy to overlook what is going on with the established networks.

We’re in the middle of such a glut of new channel launches, that it

is all too easy to overlook what is going on with the established


They are in constant ferment too - witness Radio 4’s embattled


Talk Radio, under Kelvin MacKenzie’s proprietorial control, will also

shortly be plunged into a very public change around.

But the canniest ones, it seems, are changing their mix and emphasis

without a big marketing fanfare or unsettling their loyal audiences -

such as Classic FM, which has introduced sweeping changes and seen

ratings rise.

On Sunday night, for example, Channel 4 launched its new Film Four

subscription service, the single most important development since it

began 16 years ago this month. Yet at best this art-house/independent

movie service, surely a bit over-priced at pounds 5.99 a month, is

unlikely to appeal to more than 200,000 subscribers, compared with the

75 per cent of the population who weekly tune to the parent channel. In

other words, what happens on Channel 4 is more important than

complementary activities.

Two days after Film Four’s start, the reticent Michael Jackson, chief

executive of Channel 4, hosted his most flamboyant press conference,

(ostensibly for the new 1999 season), since he took the reins from

Michael Grade 18 months ago. He, and his directors, are too astute a

bunch of operators to call it a relaunch or a new image. But the key

ingredients such as a revamped Channel 4 News without the presenter’s

desk, a sustained live 11pm comedy slot, edgy gay drama and the choice

of on-screen stars being promoted made the point. It has a very much

more urban, multi-cultural and youthful feel, in line with the new

detailed licence agreement required by the Government. Also note that a

re-worked Channel 4 News will be on air in January before any of the

BBC’s main news programmes are overhauled, despite the tortuous, much

publicised review which has occupied its top executives for the past 18


Meanwhile Britain’s most-watched channel, ITV, under network chief

executive Richard Eyre is attempting a much more public repositioning,

and is running into trouble, both in delivering its pledge to

advertisers to reverse the audience decline in prime time, and in

revamping the schedule by ending News at Ten. It is impossible to move

News at Ten without public consultation and ITC approval, but all the

signs are that the proposal will be rejected by the commission on 19

November, dealing a further blow to its plans to ramp up ratings.

It’s not an option open to all networks, especially failing ones, but

stealthy, incremental change, presented as a fait accompli, rather than

with a big PR fanfare, has its value. It smacks of confidence.

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