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Channel 4 chief calls for legislation to promote broadcasters

Channel 4 chief calls for legislation to promote broadcasters

July 25
14:22 2018

  • PSBs need to be visible on smart TVs and online video
  • Generation turning away from traditional television
  • Channel 4 will maintain its edgy content

Alex Mahon, the chief executive of Channel 4, has called on the government to introduce legislation that would ensure the UK’s public service broadcasters are displayed prominently on smart TVs and online video services in order to stay visible and relevant to a generation that is increasingly turning away from traditional television viewing.

The PSBs — the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 — must be shown in a prominent position in the electronic programme guides of cable and satellite television services such as Sky because of their public remit to provide news, weather and other services.

But there are no such requirements with smart TVs or online video devices, which often display a multitude of on-demand app services, such as Netflix or YouTube, alongside on-demand services from the PSBs, such as the BBC iPlayer and Channel 4’s All Four.

“When you switch on your smart TV you just see whatever slots that come up,” said Ms Mahon, in her first interview since becoming chief executive last year. “When you plug in your Amazon Fire stick, which now represents 17 per cent of streams to television sets, there’s no prominence for UK public service broadcasters.”

Public access to independent news at stake

At stake, she says, is public access to “editorially verified, independent news [and] properly researched journalism”, which is “threatened” by the lack of prominence of the PSBs.

“In a time of social media and echo chambers, independent, well researched democratic news is more important than ever.”

A report by media regulator Ofcom last week found that people aged 16-34 now watch more non-broadcast than broadcast television content, with YouTube taking an increasingly large share. More people in the UK now subscribe to streaming video services, such as Netflix and Amazon, than pay-television — part of what Ofcom called a “major shift in the UK’s viewing habits”.

“I think we need a [new] legislative environment [for prominence] because you’re getting a generation of people who just switch on YouTube or Netflix or Facebook,” says Ms Mahon. “Ofcom should investigate it and I think government should legislate it.”

She also called for PSB services to be prioritised in new voice-activated remote control devices, such as Sky’s Q box, which enable the searching of channels by voice command. “Voice is where the growth is in the market. But If you search for news [using voice] there is no regulation around what you are served. Is it BBC or Channel 4 News or Russia Today? Is it a fake news bot farm that I’ve never heard of? There’s no regulation at all.”

Move out of London to boost diversity

Channel 4 is currently in the midst of great change. It is reviewing bids from cities hoping to be the site of its next national headquarters, as well as bids for the location of two “creative hubs”. A decision on the new sites is due in the autumn.

The channel, which is publicly owned but commercially funded, has also committed to moving 50 per cent of its spending outside the capital.

“We need to be a digital-first platform and we need to represent the UK,” said Ms Mahon, pointing to the “disenfranchisement” between London and the regions that became evident following the Brexit referendum. The move means Channel 4 will better positioned to connect with the young and diverse audiences it is committed to serving as part of its public mandate, she added.

Northern Ireland-set ‘Derry Girls’ © Channel 4

Birmingham, Greater Manchester, and Leeds have all made the shortlist for the new national HQ. They are also in contention for one of the two proposed creative hubs, vying with Bristol, Cardiff and Glasgow.

Ms Mahon points to the channel’s latest programming slate as an example of the benefit of looking beyond the capital, highlighting the Northern Ireland-set Derry Girls, a “super fresh” comedy which has generated big ratings for the channel.

“When we’ve got things that resonate and that are not the London centric view of the world, they really pop,” she said.

Funding model under pressure

Ms Mahon has worked for a range of television companies — she was chief executive of Shine, which was founded by Elisabeth Murdoch, for example — but none with a funding and ownership model quite like Channel 4.

The channel needs to cover its costs and the structure of its public ownership means it is not required to make a profit. But its revenues slipped by £35m to £960m in 2017 owing to a softer ad market and competition from new digital players.

Channel 4’s ‘The Big Narstie Show’

“This year we are up for the first half and we are optimistic for the rest of the year,” she said, adding that advertisers are returning to television because of concerns about brand safety on digital platforms.

Despite her call for more PSB prominence, Ms Mahon says she is undaunted by deep pocketed digital groups such as Netflix. She vows that Channel 4 will keep taking risks with the edgy programming that is the network’s hallmark. Its new programming slate includes Flirty Dancing, The Big Narstie Show and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who is America.

“You don’t want to wake up to no one complaining,” she said.

Experiments with innovative advertising

Given that Alex Mahon was awarded a PhD in physics at Imperial College before starting her career in media and most recently ran Foundry, a design and visual effects firm, it is no surprise that she is interested in what science and technology can do for television.

She knows TV must innovate to stay competitive in an era increasingly defined by big digital players and is enthusiastic about “contextual moments”, a new system that Channel 4’s channel’s data science team has been developing for the last 18 months, which she says makes advertising more effective.

More than 300 hours of programming have been scanned by image recognition tools and then tagged to see how prominently particular consumer goods, items and services are featured. The data are then used to help advertisers decide when to run their ads and when their brand messages will be most effective.

“If you see an ad for dating in the break when dating has been positively portrayed in the show then your recall is twice as good,” she said, adding that better audience recall of brands and products means more effective advertising.

New advertiser services such as contextual moments will help boost Channel 4’s funding, as will its commercial growth fund, where the channel takes equity stakes in new businesses in return for commercial air time. It has taken stakes in several companies, including Eve, a mattress maker that floated on Aim last year. “We’re monetising our airtime in a different, innovative way,” said Ms Mahon.

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