Andy Duncan: 'Life's too short for grudges'

Trendy vicar, rebel, Big Brother aficionado, sports fanatic ­ Channel 4's chief executive Andy Duncan is hard to pigeonhole. He tells Ian Burrell how he differs from his predecessor, and why he's heading into uncharted waters

A bottle of mineral water in his hand and a Royal Television Society satchel thrown over his shoulder, Duncan shuffles downstairs with the rest of the staff as the Channel 4 building is evacuated as part of a security alert in the tense aftermath of the London bombings.

But the broadcasting chief has a story to tell and is in no mood to stop talking. He wants to explain why he is a very different Channel 4 boss to his predecessor Mark Thompson, now the director general of the BBC, and will take the company to places it has never been before.

Outside the building, he steps purposefully through a local street market, politely pausing to allow a homeless man to pass, and heads into an Irish theme pub called Finnegan's Wake, where he reconvenes the interview over glasses of orange juice.

Exactly 12 months into the biggest job of his life, he says: "If you go back a year I have to say I inherited C4 in very good shape. It was doing very well in the short-term ... but I think there were major issues about its longer term direction and strategy and where it was going."

This reference to Thompson's tenure at C4 is a rebuttal of critics who suggested Duncan was too much of a touchy-feely leader, an evangelical Christian who hates wearing suits and lacks the mettle to lead a company with a turnover of £841m in the unforgiving world of commercial broadcasting.

As he defines his vision, talking over the soft-rock of the pub sound system, Duncan is insistent he leads from the front. "I'm an extremely determined person and a very focused person and once I set out my stall to do something I will use everything in my creativity, passion and persuasion to get there. I don't think you have to be horrible to people in the process," he says.

"I really liked it when Channel 4 did The New Ten Commandments. The commandment that had the most votes was 'treat others as you'd like to be treated yourself' and to me there's a lot of truth in that. I think a lot of industries, and broadcast is no different, seem to have a lot of people who fall out with each other, make enemies with each other and in some cases bear grudges - for me life's too short for that. You can be tough, you can make difficult decisions but still get on with people."

The reference to the commandments would suit those who seek to paint him as a figure akin to the trendy vicar caricature of Tony Blair in Private Eye's "parish of St Albion".

Andy Duncan's appointment as chief executive of Channel 4 last year was a major surprise. Industry commentators had predicted that Peter Fincham, then head of Britain's biggest independent producer Talkback Thames and since recruited as controller of BBC1, would get the job. Hasty retractions were made as Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson handed the plum job to Duncan - virtually an unknown to most of his future colleagues.

Duncan, who will be 43 later this month, is a business graduate who made a reputation marketing margarines at Unilever, building the "I can't believe it's not butter" brand and having the inspiration to align Flora with the London Marathon.

He didn't enter the broadcasting industry until 2001, when he joined the BBC as director of marketing and communications, ending a 17-year relationship with Unilever. Within two years he was on the BBC executive board and before he left the corporation in 2004 he had confounded cynics by turning the digital terrestrial television service Freeview into such a success that it is now in five million homes and is widely regarded as being better placed than Sky to benefit from digital switchover in 2012.

"I feel more at home at Channel 4 than I did either at Unilever or the BBC," he says of his first year at Horseferry Road. "It's a smaller organisation and much more agile and it's whole remit is about being the rebel and taking risks." Such swashbuckling language does not quite fit the image of the trendy vicar.

Neverthless, when Duncan recently delivered a high-profile lecture on the influence of the television industry he was accused in a press headline of portraying Big Brother as a "Christian parable". He seems hurt by this "poor" coverage. "It was an inaccurate headline that then got repeated around the place," he says. "The really big point I was trying to make was that television ... can be a real builder of trust in society and I'm absolutely of that view."

In the speech (part of a series of Faithworks lectures that included a talk by Mr Blair), Mr Duncan actually said: "Big Brother winners are all role models in their way; not only because over past series they've included ethnic minorities, a gay man and a transsexual - as well as an Evangelical Christian - but because in the final analysis viewers choose people whose values they identify with and admire."

In spite of the lewd content of Big Brother 6, which has featured a Zimbabwean nurse performing X-rated Busby Berkeley routines in the house swimming pool, Duncan is a huge fan of the show, contradicting press suggestions, early in his C4 reign, that he disapproved and wanted it given a lower profile. "Personally I really like Big Brother. I always watch it and this year and last year have been absolutely cracking," he says. "I think it is very important for us - it's a very good show and is doing extremely well at the moment."

So there you are, Andy Duncan: Christian, rebel, Big Brother aficionado ... and hardball sports fanatic. "I play five-a-side football pretty much every Monday night at a school near home. I go home see the kids have a bit of tea and then go and play football. In the winter I play centre-forward at hockey, I like to score goals. I play golf and I play tennis," he says. "I'm a very competitive individual, I absolutely like to win. I'm not a John McEnroe in the sense that I will have a tantrum if I don't [win] but for me winning matters and I like to be part of something successful."

The recent London bombings landed Duncan with one of his toughest days as he had to decide on amendments to the schedule to cover the evolving story. He sat watching Sky News and BBC News 24, trying to gauge what had happened and worrying whether staff would be able to reach work and keep the channel on air.

"No one really quite realised what was going on to start with, there were rumours of power surges," he recalls, adding that he would have only cleared the schedules and switched to continuous news in the event of "a national emergency".

"If people want to stay in touch with what's happening every minute you go to the BBC or Sky or you turn on your radio or you have options online. I don't think C4 is a constant coverage broadcaster." Channel 4 News, which Duncan regards as the "jewel in the crown" of the organisation, "handled things sensitively and professionally", he says, producing an extended lunch-time bulletin and a late-evening news special (although ratings were up only marginally).

In the aftermath of the bombs C4 has a major role to play, Duncan believes. This is the broadcaster that screened the controversial Hamburg Cell drama (on the men behind 9/11) and Yasmin (which dramatised potential dangers of the ostracisation of young Muslims in West Yorkshire). "Channel 4 has a very important role to play in terms of trying to understand why these things are going on in the world and why people are doing what they're doing and why they believe what they believe," he says. "One of my favourite programmes this year was the recreation of Guantanamo Bay torture conditions, which I thought was a brilliant programme. We have commissioned another major drama on the Tipton Three [Guantanamo detainees]."

The Channel 4 chief executive, who has two young daughters, still lives in the Croydon area, where he grew up (attending the same school as C4 magician Derren Brown). His home is close to those of his parents and his in-laws and "if I haven't got an evening event I do try to make sure I go home by six so that I see [my daughters] before they go to bed."

As he sits there in the pub, dressed in black T-shirt and jeans and with the kind of long sideburns fashionable with men in their 20s a few years ago, Duncan (expert marketer and business strategist) explains the difference between his approach to Channel 4 and that of his predecessor Mark Thompson (the career broadcaster and distinguished programme maker).

Among the "major issues" he questions about Thompson's approach was the interest in a merger with Five, which Duncan says would have been "a big mistake", creating a purely commercial entity.

The new chief executive has a three-pronged strategy. At its heart is an emphasis on C4's public service credentials. "We've made the lunchtime news permanent, upped the number of Dispatches from 12 in peak [schedule] last year to 28."

He acknowledges the "purple patch" C4 has enjoyed with dramas such as Omagh (the story of the terror attack by the Real IRA), Sex Traffic (the exploitation of Eastern European migrants) and Government Inspector (the death of Dr David Kelly) but thinks the channel can up its output. "Those quarterly event drama pieces ... ideally we will do nine or ten [a year] with a view to them being monthly by 2006. That's a major investment."

Many of C4's recent drama successes were commissioned by John Yorke, who has left for the BBC. "There's a lot of movement between broadcasters and sometimes people have a lifespan in their roles," says Duncan. "I think John is back to where his real heart is with EastEnders and some of the continued drama stuff there. It worked out rather well in a way ... I think we've got a better all-round team now than we've ever had."

The second leg of the strategy is to strengthen C4's portfolio of channels. Next month he will launch new digital channel, More 4, another concept he claims was misconstrued by the previous C4 regime. "The plan when I got here was to have a low-cost, repeats-only channel. I was very keen that it would be a little sister public service channel to Channel 4 as a portfolio approach. It has now got a £33m budget and significant amounts of original programming."

Duncan has also given more muscle to E4, having upped its budget from £40m a year to £60m and made it available on his beloved Freeview. "I think - the situation I inherited a year ago - Channel 4 had got behind the game in multichannel. Channel 4 was in good shape but the question was how to strengthen that and keep the momentum going. In multichannel we were struggling a bit to be honest," he says. "We made a good start a few years ago with E4 and FilmFour going pay but hadn't really done enough in a period when Freeview had been launched and BBC had built a strong portfolio. ITV digital collapsed and then they recovered and launched ITV2 and ITV3 ... and Channel 4 hadn't really done very much. This has been a huge year for us with E4 and More 4 and there will be more plans going beyond that."

The final leg of the strategy, which involves broadcasting via mobile phones and computers, also marks a radical departure from the Thompson regime. Plans to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme next year will be matched by a major investment in covering the event online.

Duncan believes that "the likes of Google, Yahoo, BT and Microsoft" will increasingly be looking for a stake in broadcasting. "Make no mistake, they want to come and have a slice of our action. It's another reason why people have to be agile."

He says C4 had a "foundation" in new media before he arrived but was "not doing anywhere near enough". "This year we've more or less trebled our budgets and made some very important strategic moves," says Duncan. "Certainly the plan is to have much more emphasis on new media next year." He has hired Ron Henwood, the former head of the sports internet firm Premium TV, who starts this week as C4's director of new business.

For while Duncan believes C4's ratings will earn the channel an upsurge in advertising next year, he knows new revenue streams are vital to the organisation's future health. "The thing we've been doing a lot of work on and which you will see a lot activity over the next six months is in partnerships, potential acquistions, really looking to develop new business streams."

The first of these is a live quiz channel to be piloted on Freeview before the end of the year and provisionally titled Call TV. Duncan says the range of acquistions that C4 is looking at is "potentially quite broad".

"Obviously it needs to be relevant to Channel 4 but we are prepared to consider quite a wide range of things. One possible area is music - it fits with what we do on Channel 4, on E4 and new media," he says. "Another area is how can you leverage our particular strength with younger audiences, can you use some of our strong credentials around new media technology? What can we be doing around mobiles, what can we be doing around broadband development?"

For an organisation that had its fingers burnt investing in the At The Races channel and with the loss-making production arm of FilmFour, it is a potentially dangerous plan. "Life is not risk free and Channel 4 knows more about risk than most organisations. To me it's very similar to the risks we take on our programmes every day of the week. Most of those risks come off but some of them don't. I think for our commercial ventures it's exactly the same. If we have an attitude that says don't take risks then we are dead in the water," he says, noting that, in the past, "Channel 4 has never really made as much progress in new business as it would have wanted to".

Aside from developing its own sources of income, Channel 4 is due a public handout, says Duncan, whose previous warnings that the broadcaster is facing a £100m shortfall do not seem to have been well received by Ofcom, the industry regulator.

"Look at the landscape. The BBC had a billion pounds plus of extra licence fee money put in place five years ago to help build their digital future ... look at ITV, they've had a merger, they're massively reducing their public service obligations, they're paying a substantially lower licence payment. I still think we remain the only broadcaster where there hasn't yet been appropriate policy help but I do think people are much more sympathetic than they were a year ago."

Duncan may say he has helped Channel 4 (which in May announced record post-tax annual profits of £46m) into a winning position but the question remains as to whether he is tough enough to have implemented the kind of cost-cutting implemented by Thompson.

"The answer is yes," he says. "I've restructured business in the past. It's a very unpleasant thing to do but if business performance is very poor then you do have to cut things down and reshape organisations."

He then issues a warning of his own. "I'm absolutely sure that the headcount at Channel 4 cannot go up. Channel 4 has never had so much going on across so many fronts but I'm absolutely determined we do that within the headcount that we've got," he says. "If you are adding new people over here to drive a growth area like new media you've also got to work out where in the organisation that you can either cut back or stop doing things."

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