Media: Analysis: Channel 4 chief goes digital

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The Independent Culture
AFTER A low-key start in the job, Michael Jackson, the chief executive of Channel 4 is about to shake things up. The recent appointment of his first director of programmes, Channel 5's Tim Gardam, seems to be calculated to help Channel 4 shift from the first phase of its short history into a new and different future.

When it was first set up, Channel 4 was given the remit to be "distinctive"; to commission the programmes that the other channels were too timid or too unimaginative to make. It did that with great distinction, most prominently in the world of sex, earning respect in the industry and the title "pornographer- in-chief" for its former boss, Michael Grade.

But now the broadcasting market, and particularly the BBC, has changed immeasurably. All channels are happy to churn out as many sex programmes as they can get their hands on, to the extent that this year's autumn schedules are practically a festival of sex.

And other taboos are no longer left for Channel 4 to tackle. The BBC these days will embrace practically any subject, from showing documentaries on child prostitution to broadcasting Britain's first televised death. Channel 4 is left facing unprecedented difficulty in meeting its remit to be distinctive.

Unsurprisingly, Michael Jackson has decided to hand over the day-to-day tasks of commissioning and scheduling programmes to Mr Gardam, giving himself time to think of strategy. Some argue that he should privatise the network, something which government ponders from time-to-time, and which would produce a tidy pounds 1bn for the Treasury. That option would, in effect, mean the end of Channel 4 News at its current length and in its 7pm slot, as its audiences are simply too low to satisfy advertisers. But Mr Jackson has given no indication that he is heading down the privatisation road. He is revamping Channel 4 News, giving it an extra pounds 2m a year budget, and taking it from five to six days a week. In addition, he has shown that he is committed to low-audience, high-quality landmark documentaries, commissioning new programmes from Brian Lapping and other "big name" serious producers. The first signs of the way Mr Jackson is thinking will be revealed in November with the launch of Film 4, the new niche film channel destined for the digital market. It will be subscriber-based, priced at a little below pounds 10 a month, and a whole new departure for Channel 4.

It would make sense for other niche channels to follow, based on identifying and branding the programmes that Channel 4 does best. It cannot be long before he launches a Channel 4 horse racing channel and a niche comedy channel.

As well as ensuring that Channel 4 is not swallowed up in the 200 channel digital age, the project could help the organisation remain a healthy prospect for privatisation, should the day come. Success, even at the development stage, would also boost Mr Jackson's candidacy for the post of Director-General of the BBC when Sir John Birt retires in 2000.