Channel 4 raids BBC for Jackson

LONDON — Michael Jackson, the BBC’s director of broadcasting, has been chosen as the new chief executive of Channel 4.

Jackson will replace the outgoing chief exec Michael Grade on June 1. His appointment is widely expected to mean the resignation of C4’s much-admired program chief John Willis, whom Jackson beat to the top job.

Jackson, who is in his late 30s, has completed a meteoric ascent to the pinnacles of British television. He joined the BBC 10 years ago from the indie production sector, becoming in swift succession head of music and arts, controller of BBC2 and controller of BBC1.

With last summer’s restructuring of the BBC, Jackson was handed the top creative job as director of broadcasting, ahead of his former mentor Alan Yentob, who got the second prize as head of production.

Jackson’s decision to depart for C4 is thus a serious blow to the BBC bosses who had so recently elevated him to the keystone job in the pubcaster’s controversial new structure. The question now is whether director-general John Birt will choose to summon the hugely talented Yentob back in from the cold to fill the vacancy, or whether the BBC will look elsewhere for its creative leader. C4’s Willis may even be a candidate for the job.

At C4, Jackson’s arrival is sure to mean a radical rethink of the minority web’s programming strategy, especially if it also triggers the departure of Willis, who is hugely popular within the channel, and among its legion of indie producers. Jackson, a TV obsessive who started out making programs about the media business for C4, is likely to place a renewed priority on creative innovation after Grade’s more populist emphasis on developing the channel’s commercial muscle.

C4 is wholly funded by advertising, but has no shareholders, and its mandate is to serve minority audiences not catered to by the other channels.

Jackson said, “I greatly value the opportunity to lead an organization which has transformed television.”

Film prod’n may be at risk

One big question will be the future of the web’s film production policy; C4 has been the single greatest backer of the British film industry for the past decade. Under Grade, who was initially perceived as hostile to filmmaking when he was appointed in 1988, C4 substantially expanded its movie investments, backing such pics as “The Crying Game,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Trainspotting.” It also launched its own U.K. distribution arm last year.

The prestige that these films have conferred on C4 around the world makes it highly unlikely that the film arm will be dismantled by the incoming chief exec. But film sucks up a huge proportion of the web’s drama budget, and Jackson may want to see some reallocation of resources.

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