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C4's uncertain future in an age of austerity

It is indeed the age of austerity. You can tell because Channel 4’s total profit for the last financial year was the kind of money that used to go on a senior executive bonus. Or a really good party.

£300k. Don’t sneer, it is in itself a miracle worthy of Derren Brown. The main channel lost £61.6m. To bring that round into credit speaks volumes about the cost cutting at Horseferry Road over the last 12 months. Significantly, C4 has managed to configure its digital businesses in ways which support the advertising deficit in the analogue world rather than vice versa. Would that every mainstream media company was in that happy position. Whether E4 in particular will look quite so profitable in the post-Big Brother, post-Friends wasteland is harder to see.

Not that anything is clear about the future for C4. All is uncertainty. The restructuring announced by new chief exec David Abraham last month suggests a dramatic change of personnel is ahead. A quarter of senior management will go. Julian Bellamy’s job is disappearing, though he is appointed to an interim post of chief creative officer. Commissioning editors are being thinned out, it seems, in favour of audience insight and customer relationship management. These are skills already very much employed at Sky, newspaper groups and the BBC. That C4, always an outperforming brand, never had such a department, is typical of the hole many media companies now find themselves in. Broadcasters, by their very definition, have never had a direct relationship with their viewers and that’s not sustainable.

And as success at C4 shifts from having vital relationships with politicians, regulators and press who will support the case for the broadcaster into those who will pay for it in a different way, one of its key advocates is also leaving. Matt Baker, who for 12 years has defended, articulated and only occasionally dissembled, has decided four chief executives is too many for one head of press and will leave the channel.

Baker has been a powerful and committed voice for everything that is good about C4. If he also tried way too hard to defend some of the rubbish, well that’s what you get paid for. As they rightly struggle, yet again, to redefine themselves as both public service and commercially successful in a new and complex age, they will miss him and so will we.

Posted 06 July 2010 by Janine Gibson
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