C4’s Thompson calls for ‘radical’ revamp

Cutbacks coupled with more cash for programming

LONDON — Channel 4’s new chief exec Mark Thompson has unveiled a manifesto for “radical change” at the web, including staff cuts and a boost in program investment.

He outlined his vision for a “leaner, bolder” Channel 4 ahead of the web’s board meeting today, which is expected to confirm the closure of the loss-making movie arm FilmFour Ltd.

Thompson immediately announced an extra £8 million ($12 million) on top of the existing $615 million program budget for 2002. This was possible, he said, because of “improved revenue forecasts.”

He is also cutting the number of program departments from 13 to eight. “Creating a leaner, less hierachical Channel 4 will mean employing fewer people,” he said.

A new Fiction department, yet to be announced, will include the existing drama operation, alongside a slimmed-down film production unit, which will retain the FilmFour label.

The new FilmFour will bear little resemblance to the old FilmFour Ltd., a separate company which handled its own U.K. distribution and international sales.

Reporting directly to Thompson, it is expected to have an annual budget of $15 million to $18 million for production and development, compared to the $47 million spent last year by FFL. This coin will be invested largely in U.K. TV rights.

FFL was part of 4 Ventures, the web’s commercial arm, which also includes the pay-TV services E4 and FilmFour. 4 Ventures lost close to $100 million last year.

Thompson said that he supported the strategy behind 4 Ventures, to help “offset the impact of digital dilution on the core channel.”

But he warned that the web had “to face economic realities” with its new businesses. He described E4, a general entertainment service, as “an incredible, almost unique achievement,” but made no mention of the movie channel FilmFour. The future of both services will also be discussed at today’s C4 board meeting.

In general, Thompson chose to depict C4, a pubcaster funded by advertising, as an underdog in the cut-throat world of multi-channel competition.

“If we don’t change the schedules, the way we work, the structure and scale of the organization very radically indeed, we are not going to succeed,” he said.

He emphasized that his immediate programming priorities were “a powerful arsenal of entertainment programs, a bold new strategy for drama, and finding and developing factual entertainment and event programming.”

He said he wanted to reawaken the “subversive, bold, risk-taking spirit” which characterized C4’s early years in the 1980s. “It’s a spirit you can only really foster when you’re small and fleet of foot,” he argued.

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