C4 goes for brand man

U.K. channel puts its faith in outsider David Abraham

LONDON — If you are looking for the next generation of British television talent look no further — David Abraham is your man.

Appointed Jan. 22 as the sixth CEO of pubcaster-commercial hybrid Channel 4, Abraham’s low profile and outsider status belie his TV achievements to date.

He turned round the then-flagging U.S. cable channel TLC during his 2005-2007 tenure and successfully rebranded Blighty’s second biggest multi-channel provider, UKTV, where he has been CEO since 2007.

Abraham, who began his media career in advertising, must now make it three in a row by reinventing C4 for the digital age and restoring harmony to what is, by all accounts, a worryingly dysfunctional place.

Abraham replaces Andy Duncan, squeezed out after an unsuccessful campaign to win a public subsidy.

It’s public knowledge that Duncan had differences of opinion with outgoing chairman Luke Johnson and C4’s director of television Kevin Lygo, none of which helped morale at C4.

Lygo was one of the more prominent candidates for the CEO job along with ex-BBC and Discovery U.S. boss Jane Root.

But Abraham is a canny choice.

“When David returned from the U.S. he benefited from seeing the U.K. with a fresh pair of eyes,” says Simon Shaps, ITV’s former director of television. “David has a number of strengths — broad commercial experience, understanding brands in a multi-channel world, an interest and feel for technology and, crucially, creative leadership.”

There seems little doubt that Abraham has strong creative credentials. His rebranding of UKTV’s 10-channel portfolio is evidence of that: He transformed male-skewed G2 into Dave, making it laddish and trendy and boosting auds.

But while he has run channels — his first big local TV job was general manager of Discovery Networks U.K. — and channel businesses, he possesses no direct production experience.

Because C4 remains an oddly British compromise, owned by the state, but funded by advertising and obliged to provide challenging shows that push the envelope, Abraham’s lack of hands-on program-making expertise raised eyebrows when his appointment was announced.

C4 execs must be hoping this will be out-weighed by Abraham’s ability to bring a fresh perspective to the challenged world of terrestrial broadcasting that C4 finds itself in.

There is, however, important work that needs to be done.

Advertising revenues at C4 are down, as they are at all broadcasters, and the program spend has been cut to £525 million ($850 million), down at least $162 million on 2008.

Thanks to the success of digital sister web, E4, the broadcaster’s overall ratings for its portfolio of channels have fallen only a fraction, from 11.9% to 11.6%. But this disguises a steeper decline at the main web, C4, whose all-day viewing share, including its “plus-one” time-shifted channel, fell by 8.3% last year.

Creatively, C4 is in decent health thanks to dramas including “Red Riding” and “Skins” (being remade in the U.S.); comedy “Peep Show”; U.S. skeins including “The Good Wife”; and the halo effect of the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” backed by FilmFour, the web’s tiny but influential film unit.

But the broadcaster needs to fill the huge gap left by last summer’s decision to ax its biggest show, “Big Brother,” following a ratings slide.

Observers expect Abraham, described by the web’s new chairman Terry Burns as “a rare commodity” who can “unlock creative potential,” to cut costs further.

Another reduction in C4’s headcount, now around 730, is on the cards and the possible merger of its in-house ad sales department with an outside ad sales company.

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