Media: C4 is leaner, but keener for ideas

It is all change at Channel 4 this year. A new chief executive and chairman have joined amid a fundamental creative overhaul and a need to explore new funding options.

At the top management level, UKTV chief executive David Abraham has replaced departed chief executive Andy Duncan. Abraham's move, confirmed in late January, follows the appointment of Lord Burns as the channel's chairman late last year.

PR professionals have already noticed a trimming-down of the channel's traditionally heavyweight news coverage (PRWeek, 30 September 2009). This could be the tip of the iceberg for changes to the channel's output during the next 12 months, but its news output, the primary source of opportunities for PR professionals, remains a vital channel for PROs.

The news content is still praised by many PROs for offering more opportunities than rivals the BBC and ITV, and the advice from the channel's editorial team is to allow plenty of notice to enable the news team to investigate issues in depth. An email the day before, under embargo, is the best route in.

Nick Rabin, head of broadcast PR at Weber Shandwick, notes: 'Abraham has an incredibly difficult job. Channel 4 possibly took its eye off the ball from a programming perspective because it was too focused on funding issues.'

Its ratings have remained stable (see quick facts), but the programme budget has been cut by more than £100m this year, to around £525m, as ad revenue plummets.

Rabin calls funding 'the big elephant in the room' for the channel and it certainly pre-occupied Duncan and much of its comms strategy.

Channel 4 made a concerted effort to take a slice of the profits from BBC Worldwide or a public subsidy, but its calls fell on deaf ears.

Matt Baker, Channel 4's controller of press and publicity, admits its lobbying efforts for funding 'ran out of time' with a general election imminent, but that means Abraham is able to 'start work with a blank page'.

Jim Godfrey, co-founder of GallieGodfrey, agrees: 'Channel 4 now has a real opportunity to make a fresh start and refocus on its creative output.'

Channel 4 lives and dies by its reputation for original and quality output, but this has arguably been damaged lately by a heavy mix of reality TV and US imports, such as the recently axed repeats of Friends.

Baker insists the broadcaster's reputation for pushing boundaries needs to be at the core of its ethos: 'Our brand is all about taking risks that other broadcasters would not, offering a platform to different voices and trying to change people's perceptions.'

The opportunity for creative renewal is especially marked, given that the broadcaster must replace Big Brother in 2011. The reality TV trailblazer was a brand-defining show, but had its negative connotations.

Ian Johnson, founder of Ian Johnson Publicity, says: 'As successful as Big Brother has been, it was something of a straight-jacket for C4 in terms of perception.'

Baker concedes the programme alienated older, more upmarket stakeholders. But its demise enables the channel to invest in original drama, arts, high-end documentaries and market-leading interactive services - all providing potentially more opportunities for PR input than the reality show.

Because of this public service ethos, Abraham may tinker with the corporate strategy, but the core comms message about its future is almost certain to remain the same - that it has no wish to become an entirely commercial entity.

Baker says: 'The board does not want Channel 4 to go down a purely commercial route. Ultimately, that is a decision for the Government, which is why a great deal of our lobbying effort focuses on demonstrating we are a public organisation that delivers a significant amount of public value.'

Rabin concurs that Channel 4 should play up its public service credentials: 'It could be argued Channel 4 fulfils its public service brief better in many cases than the BBC does.'

QUICK FACTS

Channel 4/S4C share of total viewing in January 2010 7.3 per cent (7.1 per cent in Jan 2009)

Average weekly viewing per person in January: Two hours 17 mins

Most-watched programme in January: Slumdog Millionaire, 13 January, 5.23 million

(Source: BARB)

Contact: mbaker@channel4.co.uk

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