David Abraham interview: My baby, the sexy love child of Stephen Hawking and Steve Jobs

The James Ashton Interview: Channel 4’s chief executive is proud of that description of his broadcaster – and a passionate defender of its place in the increasingly atomised and Americanised world of digital television

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The Independent Online

Listen to this: Channel 4 is “like the sexy love child of Steve Jobs and Stephen Hawking: entrepreneurial and commercial, but also intellectually restless and provocative”.

These are not the words of David Abraham, the broadcaster’s chief executive, but one of many glowing tributes from industry peers in a red booklet he slides across the table halfway through our chat.

Something must be up. Companies don’t commission research – such as this document, which details Channel 4’s role as “a catalyst for risk taking and innovation” across the television and film industry – unless they have a point to prove.

Abraham has several. He was rather quiet to begin with at the helm of Channel 4, but four and a half years on, the former advertising executive – who insists that Dave, the digital station he rebranded while running UKTV, wasn’t named after him – has found his voice. So, too, has his main channel today. The vacuum that Big Brother left has gradually been filled by the talked-about Gogglebox, Benefits Street and Educating Yorkshire.

In thick-rimmed specs and with wavy black locks, Abraham is what you imagine a media executive might look like if you had to invent one. He has spent a chunk of time this autumn insisting he is  not anti-American.

As well as raising fears in a speech over the impact of a string of takeovers on Britain’s broadcasting landscape, Abraham, 51, is using the new foreign legion as a chance to position Channel 4 as the best of British just as the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, embarks on a review of public-service broadcasting.

“I welcome the opportunity to re-explain the value we are providing to the nation,” he says, in a meeting room whose walls are clad with the broadcaster’s past and present, including a picture of the former Channel 4  boss Lord Grade being playfully throttled.

Much has changed in the 32 years since the broadcaster launched: a proliferation of digital channels, kids clicking on YouTube, and the fact that the nation isn’t that easy to shock with risky shows any more. But much remains constant, such as the threat to tinker with Channel 4’s unique state-owned, advertiser-funded model, and the need to come across as a distinct alternative to the BBC.

Whispered of in Westminster as a target for privatisation, that story has tailed off. Still, Abraham is taking the opportunity to campaign for better terms of trade with some of the programme makers it nurtured but is now dwarfed by, as well as suggesting Sky and Virgin should pay to carry its public-service content.

Take Hollyoaks. When Channel 4 commissioned the teen soap 20 years ago, it was made by Brookside supremo Phil Redmond’s Mersey Television. A decade on, it was bought by a larger, indie producer, All3Media, which is now co-owned by two American media giants, Discovery Communications and Liberty Global. Channel 5 and the cable company Virgin Media have also been gobbled up.

“We have an admirable, open-door policy, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have a discussion about what you want to preserve,” Abraham says.

But he was clearly stung by some of the reaction to his MacTaggart Lecture, adding: “For Americans to come over here and say I am arguing for protectionism is preposterous, because Americans have their own laws about media ownership. Rupert Murdoch had to change nationality in order to own Fox.”

While it contends with the big guys, Channel 4, which doesn’t make programmes itself, has started to invest in some of the smallest producers among the 400 firms it works with. Abraham set aside £20m in a growth fund to “create a balanced portfolio of businesses… the super-indies of the future”. Its fifth deal has seen it take a stake in Eleven Film, a producer which made the drama series Glue for E4. “They are stars of the future,” Abraham says of founders Jamie Campbell and Joel Wilson. “With this investment they will be able to secure their independence for longer and do what they want to do.”

This is what he means when he says Channel 4 “is absolutely critical as an accelerator in the system – and the brilliant thing is we don’t cost the taxpayer a penny”.

He’s just as enthusiastic about Channel 4’s new drama output, an antidote to the “surfeit of cop shows” on other channels. The forthcoming Cucumber and Banana, two connected gay dramas from Russell T Davies, plus a third, educational strand, fulfils a “remit that asks us to speak to issues that tend not to get addressed in mainstream media”. Another, Indian Summers, a look at the final days of British colonial power starring Julie Walters, holds a personal interest  for Abraham, whose father was born in India and left just after independence.

As one of the last generation to do national service, he had been stationed at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire – the reason Abraham was born in the county in 1963. By the time he was eight, the family had moved to Essex, where his dad became a council architect.

Abraham had plans to become a documentary maker but made his first big splash in advertising, founding St Luke’s, “an attempt to run an ad agency on co-operative principles, and for about five years it worked really, really well”. From there he switched to television at Discovery Networks, honing his knowledge of advertising sales while running the TLC channel in America and demonstrating his marketing nous by rebranding anonymous cable channels as Dave and Blighty when he returned to Britain to lead UKTV.

In banging the drum for Channel 4’s cultural and economic value, its own finances get scrutinised. For all the changes in the media landscape, Channel 4 has been remarkably stable. It turns over about £900m, mainly from advertising, and spends in the order of £600m on programming content. Abraham has dipped into the kitty over the past couple of years, but the broadcaster still has cash reserves north of £200m and owns the £70m freehold on its smart headquarters near Victoria railway station.

A little over five years ago, Ofcom said Channel 4 faced a potential £100m budget deficit and gave it the green light to find a merger partner.

It was a crisis that never happened, although there are still pressures, such as making sure Channel 4 reaches enough viewers. Its family of channels, including E4 and More4, grabbed only 11 per cent of all viewing, the lowest since 2005, last year. But the second Inbetweeners movie marked a decent payday and shows how it can act commercially to sustain things such as the hard-hitting Channel 4 News.

“Hopefully this management team has demonstrated we know how to keep this thing moving forward,”  Abraham adds.

Then there is the drive to sign up 11.5 million registered users to its 4oD on-demand service, including half of all 16- to 34-year-olds. Abraham predicts that digital income will be “well north of” £50m this year and 4oD has the potential to be a £100m operation in the next two or three years with targeted advertising.

“We punch way above our weight on online,” he says, adding that the youth channel E4 has had “a kick-ass year” and prime-time ratings have been bouncing back.

That isn’t to say he wouldn’t welcome some payback from Sky and Virgin, whose growth has been aided by airing public-service programming.

“There was a leg-up [when they launched] but is the leg-up still needed? Shouldn’t we adopt the kind of system that exists in other parts of the world where there is a fair exchange of value?”

Some Channel 4 bosses have gone on to run the BBC, but it sounds as though Abraham will not follow them.

“I like to be somewhere where there is a daily revenue number. I have worked for  30 years always in a commercial organisation and I am not sure the BBC is really for me.”

Nor, after flying the flag for Britain so vociferously, does a move to an American network look on the cards.

The CV

Education: Born in Lincolnshire, raised in Essex.

Attended Ingatestone, a state secondary school, and gained a BA in modern history from Magdalen College, Oxford.

Career: Founded the advertising agency St Luke’s in 1995. Switched to television, joining Discovery Networks UK and going to America to run TLC . Returned to Britain in 2007 to lead the BBC joint venture UKTV. Became Channel 4 chief executive in 2010.

Personal: Two grown-up children from former marriage. His son is “developing a little creative business of his own” and his daughter is a Montessori teacher. Partner Tiina Lee is the chief operating officer for Deutsche Bank. Relaxes by cycling and taking part in yoga – “a good way to unwind, literally” – but, referring to the job, he adds: “I sort of feel when people ask about hobbies, this is my hobby.”