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David Abraham: 'Channel 5 thinks it's clever, but we're still the No 1'

Channel 4's chief executive tells Ian Burrell about the fight for young viewers, how to make shows relevant in straitened times – and why Richard Desmond is welcome to 'Big Brother'

David Abraham, chief executive of Channel 4 for the past 18 months, says he is not worried by the apparent resurgence of its rival Channel 5, owned by the maverick media mogul Richard Desmond. He sleeps easily at night, partly because he is convinced that Channel 4 is performing better than its critics suggest and partly because he doesn't accept the narrative that says Channel 5 is on the up, with profits soaring and a new, young audience arriving to watch Big Brother, a show his own channel made famous.

"Look at the stats, Channel 5 is down," says Abraham, in a moment of irritation. "When [Desmond] bought the channel – go back and look at his quotes, what he said the day he bought it – he said he was going to spend something like £500m. Where's the evidence of that?"

The day before we meet, Abraham had gone out to persuade the advertising industry that Channel 4 was still down with the kids. He surrounded himself with talent such as Simon Bird (star of the Film 4 hit The Inbetweeners Movie), David Mitchell from 10 O'Clock Live and actors from the student comedy Fresh Meat and the inner-city drama Top Boy. The message was that Channel 4, the network where the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen and Ricky Gervais had their first television breaks, has uncovered what Abraham describes as a "new generation of extremely talented people in their twenties".

Once an advertising executive himself, he told the key media agencies, who decide where to place the millions their clients spend on promoting goods and services, that they needed to put their cash with Channel 4 and not with Desmond's network or other commercial rivals. "They have just moved money from other parts of their schedule to fund Big Brother and, from a very low base, it has given them slightly more youngs," he says of Channel 5. "Their trading people are saying: 'Aren't we clever? We are stronger on youngs', but we are still the market leader."

In a speech earlier this year, Abraham, 48, who wears the sharp suits and fashionable spectacles of the modern media executive, felt the need to say that "despite my appearance, I did not grow up in north London". He is actually an Abraham from Lincoln. His mother is a survivor of Nazi-occupied Belgium; his father grew up in India among the small Jewish community in Calcutta but became a local government architect in England. Abraham was state-schooled before heading to Oxford to read modern history. After a successful career in advertising he switched to television, working at a senior level for Discovery in both the UK and America before becoming chief executive of UKTV in 2007. He is best known for the remarkably successful re-branding of the G2 channel as "Dave" (not after himself, but because everyone supposedly has a friend of that name).

Under Abraham's immediate predecessor, Channel 4 was pleading poverty and begging the Government for a £150m-a-year subsidy. Today the broadcaster, which is 30 years old next year, is firmly in the black, declaring annual profits of £40m in 2010 (up from just £300,000 in 2009). "A year ago everyone said the house would fall down without Big Brother," he says, pointing out that the channel's total audience share has only fallen from 7 per cent to 6.9 per cent in the past year, while that of its portfolio (including E4 and More 4) has grown from 11.4 per cent to 11.7 per cent.

The luxury of a £55m surplus to spend on programmes (with more to come this year) has two causes. The first is that Channel 4 has made big staff cuts. "There used to be 1,200 people working at Channel 4 and there are now less than 800, so a lot of people have lost their jobs and we are working a lot leaner," says Abraham. The second is the upturn in television advertising that has been a happy coincidence during Abraham's tenure.

Turn on Channel 4 and it has a zeitgeist feel that is partly the result of other happy coincidences. Top Boy, last week's stunning four-part portrayal of gang life on east London estates, was commissioned before Abraham joined Channel 4 in 2010, indeed before this summer's riots. At the time they occurred, Channel 4 happened to be running its "Street Summer" season about urban culture. The excellent Fresh Meat puts such comic talents as Jack Whitehall and Joe Thomas in a student environment, just as access to university and graduate unemployment have become big issues. Shows such as Educating Essex, 24 Hours In A&E, Coppers and Three Nines highlight the work of an under-threat public sector. "It reinforces the social value of what's being done at a time when we're having to make tough choices," says Abraham.

On the other hand, some of the backbone of the schedule depends on audience interest in the home improvement ideas of presenters Kevin McCloud, pictured left, of Grand Designs, Sarah Beeny (Beeny's Restoration Nightmare) and Kirstie Allsopp (the recently shelved Relocation, Relocation) at a time of property-market stagnation and economic depression. But it's bankers such as Come Dine With Me and Grand Designs that give Abraham and his chief operating officer, Jay Hunt (recruited last year from BBC 1), to take risks elsewhere. "Because 3.5 million want to watch Kevin McCloud it's simultaneously allowing other things to happen," he says.

With risks come controversies. A new show, Make Bradford British, is branded as a "radical social experiment", taking people from different cultures but the same city and putting them in the same house. A promotional clip shows a Muslim woman, dressed in shalwar kameez, reduced to tears by the experience.

Channel 4 recently exposed teaching methods inside British madrassas in a Dispatches documentary "Lessons in Hatred and Violence", and it has previously enraged Islamic leaders with undercover films made inside Birmingham Central Mosque.

Abraham accepts that even a channel with a "mission for mischief" has to "take great care and be scrupulously objective" when making programmes about more conservative communities, though – oddly – he cites another Dispatches exposé of the Israel lobby as an example of the broadcaster's "even-handedness".

Since arriving as chief executive, he has moved his office to a different part of the building from that of a previous incumbent, the T-shirt wearing Andy Duncan. Abraham has a glass-walled boardroom which looks out over an attractive, decked terrace. It gives the impression of a broadcaster that is growing in confidence. But the nice picture on the wall, of an idyllic, palm-fringed beach, is deceptive. The waves lapping the virgin sands are blood red – it's a promotional picture for Channel 4's recent investigation into the slaughter of Tamils at the end of Sri Lanka's civil war. "I'm very proud that our journalists are out there speaking truth to power," he says of the resulting controversy. "There have been demonstrations around this building, attacks on our cyber-security and we've been defamed as a broadcaster in the Sri Lankan parliament and in the UN."

It helps explain why Abraham is less concerned about the threat from Desmond and criticism in his newspapers. "I don't wake up spending too much time worrying about either Channel 5 or what they talk about in the Daily Star."

A life in brief

David Abraham is the former ad man who transformed himself into one of TV's most formidable chief executives. State-educated, he won a place at Oxford then went straight into advertising. He helped to found the successful St Luke's agency before moving into television management in 2001. He made his name as head of UKTV between 2007 and 2010, overseeing a highly successful rebranding operation that produced the Dave channel, known for its repeats of Top Gear and panel shows. Channel Four appointed him as chief executive in January 2010 on an annual salary of £490,000.