Exec says turnaround stems from taking risks

LONDON — What a difference a year makes.

In 2010, when chief exec David Abraham came on board, Channel 4 was looking at a shrinking ad market and the prospect of making a further round of cuts after already having pinkslipped 200 staff and cutting its programming budget by $75 million.

When he delivered his annual report last week, Abraham was able to boast of a profit of $63.5 million for last year, compared with $493,000 in 2009, which had allowed him to invest $52 million more in content than the previous year.

In addition to the healthy numbers, Abraham could take satisfaction in the process of creative renewal that he kick-started a year ago.

Central to this was a new focus on risk-taking.

“The core of all this — which is true to the original DNA of Channel 4 — is the freedom to fail, to experiment, to some degree,” Abraham says. “As one of our founders once said, we are part of the R and D unit of British broadcasting.”

An early casualty of this experimental approach was “Seven Days,” a documentary series that followed the lives of residents in London’s fashionable Notting Hill district. It failed to click with viewers and will not be returning.

New comedy “PhoneShop” and reality series “Made in Chelsea,” on the other hand, have been more promising, and will live to fight another day.

The task of reinvigorating the channel’s schedule has now been passed to chief creative officer Jay Hunt, who joined from the BBC four months ago.

With blockbuster “Big Brother” gone from Channel 4′s sked after a decade, the net’s got a lot more freedom. The show’s departure and the freedom it’s given her is one of the things that attracted Hunt to the job, she says.

But Abraham is not asking Hunt to replace “Big Brother” with a similar long-running show.

“Those are like once in a decade propositions,” he says. “I’d rather have three things that work in that way than one thing on which we become overly reliant.”

Hunt echoes her boss’s desire for a bold approach to commissioning.

“Channel 4′s future lies in programs that take real risks — risks on new talent, risks with different subject matter, risks with the way they are executed and delivered,” she says.

Hunt sees her job as being to shake up broadcasting in the U.K.

“When you look across the broadcast landscape — when other broadcasters are being more conservative — it has never been more important for Channel 4 to stimulate debate, challenge the status quo, and, above all, to be brave,” she says.

When unveiling her first commissions last week, Hunt hinted at how she would go about this task.

“These commissions give a sense of the sort of mischief-making and fearless program-making that I hope will define my time at Channel 4,” she says.

These include “Drugs Live,” a science show in which people will take illegal drugs live on television under medical supervision, and then be monitored over the short- and long-term to record the effects on their bodies.

Another is “Happy Families,” Channel 4′s first original toon series. The show, which is being produced by L.A. shingle Rough Draft, whose work includes “Futurama,” is a satirical take on British suburban life.

Another new show is “The Coup,” a four-part political thriller about a British politician fighting the influences of multibillion-dollar multi-nation corporations. This, says Hunt, will ask the question: Who really governs Britain — government or big business?

Next, Hunt travels to the U.S. to attend the L.A. Screenings, where she will seek to find shows that fit into her vision for Channel 4.

“We are quite excited about the state of the market at the moment,” she says. “There is quite a lot of vibrancy and some interesting shows coming out of the studios.”

She demonstrated her willingness to pick up U.S. series last week with the acquisition of “The Killing,” the U.S. remake of the hit Danish thriller that Fox Television Studios produces for AMC.

With money in the bank and an appetite for new shows, she is unlikely to return from L.A. empty-handed.

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