Mark Thompson will take over a network in transition. Channel 4 can be inspired in developing cutting edge comedy like Da Ali G Show, but appal even its most loyal supporters by spending big money on poaching the desperately middle of the road Richard and Judy show from ITV.
It is a network that can launch a youth channel, E4, in times of plenty, but now has to wrestle with the fact that it isn't making money.
Thompson's predecessor, Michael Jackson, had considerable charisma and his most celebrated programmes, such as Big Brother, Graham Norton and imports such as Sex In The City, were cult viewing. So it was easy to get the impression that Channel 4 was where street cred could be equated with real achievement.
But that was not, by any means, always the case. It took Sir Jeremy Isaacs, Channel 4's founding chief executive, to give vent to the frustrations many felt about Channel 4's direction. Writing in The Independent in September, he bewailed Channel 4's obsession with its brand, with marketing, and with the marketing department's overwhelming desire "to target and reach a demographically clearly defined audience – the 18- to 35-year-olds – and single-mindedly commission a bulk of programmes that suits their tastes, however laddish or yobbish". Sex in recent years has not just been in the city; it has been spread liberally over Channel 4's schedules in a patronising helter-skelter pursuit of young audiences. Eurotrash and consecutive series on the porn industry do not epitomise the diversity and originality which its original remit from Parliament required.
I once asked Jackson why Channel 4 no longer offered challenges to the Government from the left of the political spectrum as it did in its early days. He replied that these days, that sort of programming would bore his audience. Thompson is likely to want to see more serious-minded programming to bolster the entertainment-heavy schedules.
The highly commercial arena into which Thompson will step also presents him with immediate problems. The network has already been forced to merge its pay-television channels, E4 and FilmFour, with its interactive department, as part of a drive to halve the £70m a year loss of 4 Ventures, Channel 4's commercial arm. And there have already been some 80 job losses this year from Channel 4.
But the wider world, and hopefully the Channel 4 board, will be looking to Thompson for something more meaningful than sorting out these current commercial headaches. He has, with the director of programmes, Tim Gardam, another former BBC current affairs man, to get the programming right; to increase diversity, to make political debate and investigation more of a feature, and develop new comedies and dramas. That is not to denigrate the American imports such as Friends, ER, Frasier and Sex in the City. These are must-sees and Thompson known he must retain them, just as he will see the strength of Channel 4's sporting niches in horse-racing, cricket and Italian football.
But his primary objective needs to be to restore its reputation for minority programming, programmes that challenge the establishment and for investigative journalism that were once the key part of its claim to be different. Thompson is a serious figure and he can make serious television sexy.Reuse content