Ian Burrell: Channel 4 is still waiting for its creative renewal

Media Studies

Except for catching some of the highlights of the Ashes, I can’t remember the last time I watched anything on Channel 5. So it pains me to see Richard Desmond’s unashamedly populist network ridiculing a British cultural institution like Channel 4.

“There’s a line we won’t cross at Channel 5,” said its canny director of programmes Ben Frow, commenting on Channel 4’s recent documentary Bodyshock: The Man with the 10-stone Testicles. If Channel 5 was mocking, how must Channel 4’s founding chief executive Jeremy Isaacs have felt about such a depressing exercise in freak-show television, even if it delivered one of its few ratings successes of the year?

Frow’s swagger was no doubt based partly on Channel 5 having briefly overtaken its rival in the ratings, buoyed by its cricket rights and the popularity of Big Brother. These are very difficult times for Channel 4 and the chief creative officer Jay Hunt tried to come back fighting last week with an interview in The Times. Later this month she is due to address the Edinburgh International Television Festival where she will try to put a positive spin on the network’s future.

Unfortunately, there were few things to get excited about in the interview. Homeland, the hit spy drama, is coming back and the network has a comedy drama in the pipeline from Paul Abbott, the writer who delivered it Shameless. There is a promising drama called Masters of Sex, starring Michael Sheen (as American gynaecologist William Masters) and Lizzy Caplan (as his sexologist and psychologist wife Virginia Johnson).

Is it enough? Hunt was announced as chief creative officer three years ago next month. Her task, set out by chief executive David Abraham, was to oversee a process of creative renewal in the wake of Big Brother being dropped.

But there has been little sign of that. The broadcaster has made good progress in moving from being a traditional television business to a multi-platform operation and its smaller channels (More4, E4 and Film4) are holding up well. But it desperately needs a home-grown breakthrough show – a “hero product” – to restore confidence and identity to the flagship brand. ITV – with its big hitting event shows from The X Factor to Champions League football – is set to coin in the ad revenue for the rest of the year.

Channel 4 – for all its public service ethos – is also a commercial operation and in the advertising world the alarm bells are starting to ring over the lack of hits. The network’s share of viewing (6.8 per cent in 2011) fell as low as 4.9 per cent last month. The last three months of the year – traditionally a strong period for the channel – are crucial. “Channel 4 has found audience delivery very tough so far this year,” says Stewart Easterbrook, chief executive of media buyers Starcom MediaVest.

Within the independent production sector there are companies that find Channel 4’s commissioning process too overbearing. The lack of autonomy has meant that successful formats have been taken elsewhere.

Aside from the ever-impressive Channel 4 News, which is thriving under editor Ben de Pear, my immediate hopes for the broadcaster rest with the drama department. Tony Grisoni’s Southcliffe – a four-parter about a shooting rampage in an English market town – began last night, cleverly scheduled to follow on from the period piece The Mill.

But the audience boost that Channel 4 received last year for its Paralympics coverage means its ratings will shortly take another year-on-year dip and make advertising  harder to sell. Commercial rivals ITV and Channel 5 are enjoying a bonanza from competing campaigns by Sky and BT in the lead up to the Premier League season – but C4 is losing out because of its limited sports portfolio.

In the public broadcasting world there is some sympathy with C4’s plight, chasing elusive young viewers at the “sharp end of the market”.

But it is also making enemies. Jay Hunt complained to The Times that Channel 4 doesn’t enjoy the comfort of “those blocks of soap in the schedule other channels have” (despite the fact it shows Hollyoaks every weekday). Tonight Channel 4’s Dispatches will turn its fire on ITV’s Coronation Street, accusing some of the soap’s stars of tweeting product endorsements in exchange for gifts. Actresses including Brooke Vincent (Sophie Webster) and Catherine Tyldesley (Eva Price) were duped into taking goods from a fake brand called Puttana Aziendale. The story was leaked to The Sun and The Daily Mirror, who each put it on the front page.

According to ITV the claims are a travesty. In an unusual move, ITV’s group legal director Andrew Garard wrote to Channel 4 to say he was “astounded” that Dispatches would consider planning such a programme. The investigation goes out as a one-hour “special” and no doubt ITV’s lawyers will be tuning in. Channel 4 needs people to watch it for different reasons.

BBC presenters take a wrong turn on fashion

Talking of product endorsement, the surprising ruling by the BBC Trust last week that Countryfile had breached editorial standards because two presenters appeared in jackets carrying the same brand of outdoor clothing, “Rab”, presents a dilemma for the style leaders of the BBC newsroom.

For all their bravery in reporting from the current conflict in Syria, Jeremy Bowen and Ian Pannell have already attracted negative online comment for having the temerity to both appear on screen in jackets carrying the winged logo of Belstaff, the motorcycle clothing company with roots in Stoke-on-Trent. Never mind that a country is tearing itself apart and reporters are dodging bullets – watch out for the risk of product placement!

A couple of years back, BBC figures including George Alagiah and diplomatic correspondent Peter Hunt were spotted both wearing Berghaus coats. The Daily Telegraph discovered that the BBC, an organisation of 16,500 people, bought 169 Berghaus jackets in a year. And before that, there was talk of a sinister plot when Evan Davis and business presenter Declan Curry both appeared in North Face puffas amid the snow-capped Swiss mountains at the Davos Summit.

The Countryfile team were clear that their sartorial clash was nothing more than coincidence and the BBC Trust should spend less time worrying about what’s being worn and focus on what’s being said.

A big shout out to Westwood: departing DJ is still on top of his game

Gangling hip-hop radio DJ Tim Westwood is leaving the BBC after 20 years. The news has provoked some predictable online commentary from those who have probably never listened to his show, let alone met him.

He is, they say, a “wigga” who “thinks he’s black”, who dresses “like he is 18-23” and talks “like a Brixton teenager” – when in fact he is going on 56.

Westwood is the same age as Ice T and Flavor Flav. His real “crime” is to have dedicated his adult life to a music form that originated in the Seventies but is still regarded by too many people with the sort of fearful mistrust once associated with jazz, now a staple of Radio 3.

I’ve spent time with him: he’s polite and doesn’t drink. He understands new media, has a successful online TV channel and 400,000 followers on Twitter where he is often hilarious. The biggest American rap stars take him seriously but, on air, he is quick to play the clown. He’s an entertainer not a thug and he’s still packing clubs with teenagers. Good luck Big Dawg.

Twitter: @iburrell

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