It doesn’t get more ironic than the hand that’s been dealt the U.K.’s Channel 4.
The publicly owned broadcaster set up by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — and known overseas as the creative incubator of shows like “Derry Girls” and “It’s a Sin” — is facing a potential sale by Boris Johnson’s government at the exact moment it delivers the highest content budget in its 39-year history and eyes a record-breaking £1 billion ($1.3 billion) in revenues for 2021.
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Ian Katz, chief content officer, tells Variety that £700 million is ear-marked for new shows in 2022 — a cash infusion that will only build on what he brands as an auspicious “purple patch” for the channel.
The broadcaster has had a bumper year, delivering the hard-won free-to-air premieres of British tennis star Emma Raducanu’s historic U.S. Open win and Lewis Hamilton’s Formula 1 championship run, and airing shows like Peacock co-produced comedy “We Are Lady Parts,” Jodie Comer-led COVID drama “Help” and Russell T. Davies’ AIDS-centered miniseries “It’s a Sin,” a tie-up with HBO.
“There is huge respect for Channel 4 as a tastemaker internationally,” says Katz. “When we sign up to a scripted production, broadcasters and streamers tell us, ‘If you’re in, we have a high degree of confidence about that show.’”
Yet in Britain, Channel 4’s place in the broadcasting landscape is under deep scrutiny. The commercially funded broadcaster, led by the charismatic Alex Mahon, has a unique public service remit, agreed on with Parliament, to champion unheard voices and take bold risks, but Johnson’s government has deemed its model outdated.
Nonetheless, once bullish on selling Channel 4, the government didn’t expect the 60,000 responses to its consultation on privatization — many of them believed to be in support of the broadcaster. Katz, who recently told Variety that a sale would “destroy” the brand’s essence, says the channel has “made our views really clear.”
“And so have hundreds of [independent production companies],” he continues. “Given the scale of the consultation, it looks like lots of viewers have, too. It’s up to the government now to weigh all those submissions.”
If anything, 2021 has “underlined the value that we deliver to British society,” Katz argues. “There’s been a public debate about the long-term sustainability of the channel, [yet] we manage to deliver the strongest creative performance in years and record commercial performance.”
The ex-editor of hard-hitting BBC current affairs program “Newsnight” is rounding out four years at Channel 4 in December, where he replaced powerhouse executive Jay Hunt (now the creative director for Europe at Apple) in January 2018. While the mercurial Hunt had her share of critics in the indie production community, Katz — a former editor at The Guardian — has similarly perplexed Channel 4’s program suppliers with his outsider status, having worked in TV only since 2013.
Arguably, almost half of Katz’s tenure at Channel 4 has now been in pandemic times, but 2021 has marked something of a turning point for the content executive, who may not yet have delivered the unscripted behemoths of his predecessor — Hunt was responsible for the likes of “Gogglebox,” “First Dates” and “The Secret Life of 4 Years Olds,” not to mention luring “The Great British Bake Off” from the BBC — but is carving out a fresh identity at Channel 4.
While the last year has seen a stellar run of scripted hits and the headline-grabbing success of a “guerrilla sports strategy,” the broadcaster also delivered 1,000 hours of Paralympics coverage out of Tokyo with a 70% disabled presenting team. Then, there was the ground-breaking Black to Front program — the brainchild of commissioners Vivienne Molokwu and Shaminder Nahal — which saw predominantly Black on- and off-screen talent featured across an entire day of programming (including commercial breaks).
But of the 14 companies producing the program’s 13 shows, only four Black-owned production firms took part, and only on new titles. Shortly after Black to Front aired, Channel 4 revealed plans to commit £22 million for commissions from diverse-led companies by the end of 2023, although Katz warns that “there aren’t enough diverse-led indies in this country.”
“We’ve got to grow that part of the sector so that we can get more shows from companies where the decision-making power is done by people of color,” he says.
Meanwhile, the broadcaster must also contend with a string of high-profile departures from Channel 4’s commissioning ranks. Factual boss Danny Horan, who commissioned the likes of “The Dog House” and documentary series “Jade: The Reality Star That Changed Britain,” announced his departure this month, following the exits earlier this year of scripted exec Lee Mason to Disney Plus, documentary commissioner Fozia Khan to Amazon Prime Video and deputy director of programs Kelly Webb-Lamb.
Katz describes the changes as a “cork emerging from the bottle” after year one of the pandemic, when few people moved jobs. “The truth is, we have more talent than most places, so I think some departures are always going to be inevitable,” he says, claiming there’s no connection between the exits and uncertainty around Channel 4’s future ownership.
The exec highlights a number of new commissions, including one from the channel’s Contestable Pot fund for innovative formats: factual entertainment and crime drama hybrid “The Murder Retrial,” which completely recreates a trial. There’s also celebrity reality show “Afraid of the Dark” from the Global Format Fund, which explores people’s primal fear of the dark. On the scripted side, highlights include Channel 4 and HBO co-production “Get Millie Black” from Booker Prize-winning author Marlon James, and comedies “Hullraisers” and “I Hate You,” the latter from “Friday Night Dinner” creator Robert Popper.
Going into 2022, that hefty £700 million content spend will be used in large part to drive digital growth, says Katz. Channel 4 says its catch-up service All4, which has a deep catalogue of shows from the broadcaster, is the U.K.’s most popular player in terms of hours viewed, up 24% year on year.
“We put a lot of money next year into the combination of E4 and All 4, so we’ve now got the highest combined budget of E4 and All 4 than we’ve ever had because it’s those big E4 entertainment shows like ‘Celebs Go Dating, ‘Made in Chelsea’ and ‘Married at First Sight’ that has really powered a lot of All4 growth,” says Katz.
International aspirations are also on the horizon. There’s a “big piece of work” underway on plans to turn All 4 into a global streaming offering, similar to the model behind “Walter Presents,” now an international niche SVOD service that began life as Channel 4’s foreign-language drama offering.
“There are a whole million questions that need to be addressed,” admits Katz, “and they’re around mostly around rights. But I think the question is, could some form of an All 4 service be available internationally? And even if it was a relatively niche player in individual territories, collectively, could it have considerable scale?”
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