Media: Finding the right circles to mix in

With new staff, new programmes, and a new philosophy, Michael Jackson is redefining the goals of Channel 4. But what are they?
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The Independent Culture
At the beginning of next year the circles will go from Channel 4. The largely unloved hoops that make up the current on-screen logo will be replaced with a new image, that is currently being designed by the channel's presentation department. The new logo will be timely and symbolic. After 20 months in the job Channel 4 is now chief executive Michael Jackson's baby. The programmes on the screen now are the first programmes commissioned by Jackson, and the people from the Michael Grade era are largely gone. Stories about the channel are of a different order too, since the days of the "pornographer-in-chief".

The latest headlines came at the end of last week, when Channel 4 secured the worldwide rights to a Monica Lewinsky interview. The channel sees the interview as the logical extension of its acclaimed series on the Clintons' marriage, but in fact every channel in the world has been covering the Clinton infidelity, and it is possible to see the deal as the channel flexing its financial muscles.

Similarly, Channel 4 denied that money was all that was behind its snatching of Test Match cricket from under the nose of the BBC. At the time, Michael Jackson said that his pounds 103m joint bid with Sky was "only" three or four million pounds more than the BBC offered for the cricket. Instead, a "stunning" presentation to the cricket authorities, and a "fresh innovative approach" are deemed to have won the day.

Yet there is no denying that the old ITV levy is sloshing around Channel 4 waiting to be spent. The scrapping of the levy was worth around pounds 30m to the channel this year and will be worth another pounds 90m next year. So, from this money, Channel 4 News is getting a new studio, an extra episode per week and an extra pounds 2m a year.

Drama too has benefited, with an extra pounds 10m, taking its budget to pounds 30m and giving the channel its strongest winter season for some years. The season will include a drama called Psychos, set in a Glasgow asylum, and a gay soap called As Queer as Folk. These are not just there to keep the Daily Mail happy, but part of a search for "returning" drama series, like BBC2's This Life, which the channel has never before managed.

On top of Lewinsky, the cricket and the new programmes, there is also Film Four, the channel's first venture into pay television, and a marker of future expansion.

All this activity seems to point to a channel with the confidence to act like the sizeable broadcaster it is. Its advertising sales have always been a phenomenal success, and Channel 4 is the wealthiest broadcaster per viewer in Britain. But because of its "alternative" ethos, and because of its fear of privatisation, it has liked to keep quiet about its wealth and size.

However confidence was required after the late Michael Grade period. Much loved as he was, as an old-style television trooper, Grade's last year in charge was severely criticised by the Independent Television Commission. It's 1997 annual report accused the channel of "losing its innovative edge", producing no "landmark" programmes or "high peaks" of minority interest programmes.

Instead, it relied so heavily on imported programmes that the Government and ITC forced it to accept a toughened up "alternative" remit in the form of a new licence before it could have the ITV levy back.

Jackson has dismantled the Grade Channel 4 to an extent that only sinks in when looked at all at once. Since arriving he has appointed a new head of drama, a new head of film production, and a new head of entertainment. There is also a new senior editor for documentaries, a new commissioning editor for education and leisure, and new commissioning editors for children's programmes, night-time programmes, and for sport. He also created the posts of director of strategy and head of pay television. In 20 months more senior jobs have changed at Channel 4 than they did in eight years under Grade.

But what is the overall strategy that links Monica with Test cricket, and Film Four with money for returning drama series?

Given its senior staff, you would think Channel 4 well-able to provide plenty of strategic beef. "The legacy John Birt leaves to British television is much wider than the BBC," says a former senior executive at both the BBC and Channel 4. "You have all these ex-BBC people, like Michael Jackson, Steve Anderson [Granada head of factual] and Grant Mansfield [ITV's head of documentary] who have learned the importance of strategic thinking from Birt.

"It can be criticised as management-speak, but people like Jackson now understand about audience-focused programming. It's what allowed the BBC to survive the growth of cable and satellite, while ITV slid downhill."

Under Jackson, Channel 4 actually has its first head of strategy, David Brook. Brook is the former Guardian and Channel 5 marketing head, who lives and breathes the idea of getting strategic ideas to flow through everything that his organisation touches. At Channel 5, the catchphrase was "modern and mainstream". At Channel 4 the current buzz phrase is "Ahead of the mainstream". Which seems to mean that what Channel 4 does now, others do in three years time. Admittedly, that has always been true - look at how the wacky gameshow has proliferated since Don't Forget Your Toothbrush - but now the strategy department actually has the power to commission programmes.

"I think, in the past, there was a sense that Channel 4's positioning was defined negatively," says Brook. "It was about being different to what others were doing. That isn't enough in a multi-channel environment, so we now have a positive positioning that is about creativity, innovation and diversity.

"What links the cricket and Lewinsky is that we have this ability to be surprising. That can mean new programming ideas, or it can mean a new execution of existing genres. Our coverage of the cricket will bring a more youthful and multi-cultural edge to the game."

Brook maintains that the channel is now audience-led, but that doesn't mean programming by focus group. "It just means that knowing that one of our strengths is films and that our audience like films, we become the first terrestrial broadcaster to launch a premium pay-TV film channel.

"Since Michael arrived, he has reconciled the two schizophrenic parts of the channel. In the past there was a creative side and a commercial side to things. Now he has fused them, and the cricket, Lewinsky and the film channel are creative and commercial ideas."

Some are not sure what this actually amounts to: "There is an element of the repackaging department being repackaged," says one insider. "What you have is a lot of new people in place saying `right, we've got to do this', then all the old farts from the Grade years saying, `actually, we've always done that'."

But some believe it is more simplistic than is made out: "Some of the old farts complain the place is being run less by the taste of an individual and more by the strategy department," says the insider. "There was some fear that he would veto programming that didn't fit the strategy. In fact, the tastes of the boss matters rather a lot; and Michael Jackson was hired because he's got good taste."

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