Now make C4 unique again

Can Andy Duncan's appointment lift Channel 4 out of its reality TV quagmire? Phil Redmond thinks his marketing nous is just what the ailing broadcaster needs
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The Independent Online

Andy Duncan will be the fifth chief executive of Channel 4 I've seen and I always like to give them the benefit of the doubt - it becomes apparent after six months where their heads are. Some people have responded to his appointment with raised eyebrows, because he has a marketing background rather than one spent making television programmes. But I can see the logic. In an increasingly crowded television market, his skills are exactly those needed to get the channel noticed.

Andy Duncan will be the fifth chief executive of Channel 4 I've seen and I always like to give them the benefit of the doubt - it becomes apparent after six months where their heads are. Some people have responded to his appointment with raised eyebrows, because he has a marketing background rather than one spent making television programmes. But I can see the logic. In an increasingly crowded television market, his skills are exactly those needed to get the channel noticed.

The institution as we now know it is a 30-year-old idea, dreamed up in the 1970s to provide a public service broadcasting (PSB) platform for interests and minorities not represented elsewhere. Duncan's major challenge now is to look at where Channel 4 will fit in in 10 years' time. That will be shaped not by merging with C5, but by what the BBC does.

His minor challenge is answering that 30-year-old question. What is C4 delivering that offers an insight into Britain that cannot be found on other terrestrial or digital channels? Big Brother was an interesting show when it first started but BB5 isn't adding anything to the mix. It, and C4's other imitative reality shows, should by now have been exclusive to E4 but are kept on C4 because it needs their revenue and audience share. In essence, C4 has already become a commercial rather than a PSB channel. With the BBC set to redefine its own public service remit, and looking at the multi-channel digital future, I have come round to the idea that the original Channel 4 concept is something we probably don't need now. The logical conclusion for C4 is to consider privatisation. Because as a commercial organisation I think C4 has a bright future - it can go off and start finding niche ideas, the new Big Brother and, dare I say it, programming that challenges, rather than merely feeds, the intellect.

The channel needs to be different. There came a point when Brookside was no longer unique - due to the fact that EastEnders was showing something similar. I think C4 was probably right to remove Brookie from the peak time schedule but missed the PSB point about what to do with the 1.2 million people who had stayed with the programme for 21 years.

This is a crucial point because when Duncan was unveiled at Friday's press conference he remarked that he wanted to continue enjoying C4 through to his 70s. Maybe he just meant he was hoping to remain youthful. But the more exciting interpretation is that he is thinking of allowing the channel to stretch its demographics in prime time; to challenge, rather than feed, the intellect.

Duncan's marketing talents will have given him insight into where Channel 4's future lies. When Michael Grade was chief executive of Channel 4 he realised there wasn't a marketing mentality in the building, and he developed the idea of identifying one show per quarter and saying, "This is Channel 4." The channel still adheres to the Grade Doctrine. Jamie's Kitchen was an example. I'm not knocking the programme, but as an idea it was a me-too show; it didn't stretch choice and diversity. It would have been fine to say: "We have our own celebrity chef show", but to suggest that the programme was the definition of the channel was missing the point of public service broadcasting.

I think Duncan will see that you have to be a lot more sophisticated and will allocate money to market, and support, individual programmes. From his time at Unilever he will know that people don't go into a supermarket and ask for Unilever margarine. They seek out Flora or Olivio.

Does it matter that he has only three years' experience in television, and that at the BBC? No.He has other people for that. Duncan's skills are in exactly the area that the television industry as a whole needs more of. Most television executives have grown up in the protected world of state patronage. The industry needs a few more managers that have been brought up in the cold winds of a commercial market.

So as the fifth, but first, breed of commercial chief executives at C4, Duncan's six months start now.

Phil Redmond is the chairman and creator of Mersey Television Company, the producer of the C4 soaps 'Hollyoaks' and 'Brookside'

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