LONDON — Two years ago, if a marketing maven had landed the top job at Channel 4, once regarded as the undisputed home of creative innovation in British TV, web heads would have called it a catastrophe.
But times change — and the elevation of BBC marketing topper Andy Duncan as C4’s new CEO has provoked only mild surprise.
“The fact that there has been so little adverse reaction says a lot about the current state of Channel 4,” reckons a former executive at the station.
It also speaks volumes about how fast British TV is changing as brand identity becomes ever more important. And C4 is already a strange hybrid in U.K. terms — a state-owned pubcaster that also raises coin from advertising,
So what does Duncan’s appointment suggest about how C4 regards its future as it faces a possible partnership with terrestrial rival Five and fierce competition from commercial giant ITV?
Former C4 board member and Endemol UK chairman Peter Bazalgette says: “The most important asset Channel 4 has is its brand, and the appeal of its brand to 16 to 34 year olds. Duncan is a brand manager.”
Unlike C4’s four previous leaders (Jeremy Isaacs, Michael Grade, Michael Jackson and Mark Thompson), the 41-year old Duncan is not a program maker, never mind one boasting a track record of creative and editorial achievement in TV at the highest levels.
Prior to being hired by ex-BBC director general Greg Dyke in 2001, Duncan — almost certainly the only Beeb high flyer to attend board meetings wearing a T-shirt — had spent more than 15 years brand building at Unilever, the consumer goods giant that sells margarine and soap powders.
Duncan was crucial to the success of Freeview, the digital terrestrial service spearheaded by the BBC now in 4 million U.K. homes, and arguably the greatest achievement of Dyke’s stint at the pubcaster.
Dyke recommended the affable Duncan to C4 chairman Luke Johnson, himself only appointed last year.
Dyke praises Duncan’s skills as a team player, adding: “Channel 4 has got a pretty good programming team already, and one of the challenges for Channel 4, like everybody else, is what to do over the next 10 years, and Andy is pretty well equipped to handle that.”
Documentary maker Roger Graef, one of C4’s founding fathers and a critic of the web for focusing on under-35s and narrowing its program range, is more skeptical about Duncan’s abilities to meet the challenges.
“Giving him the job is either brave or cynical,” Graef says. “It suggests that the channel is either giving up the ghost and is preparing itself for privatization or that it wants to work out how to survive in a competitive market.
“It’s a big gamble, but it does have the potential to be a brilliant appointment provided Channel 4’s commitment to public service is not undermined.”
One thing is clear: By handing the hot seat to Duncan, Johnson is putting even more trust in director of television Kevin Lygo, still finding his feet at the station after rejoining last year.
No one doubts Lygo’s strong entertainment credentials and abilities as a scheduler, but doubts remain about the depth of his expertise across all genres.
“People are asking: Why hasn’t there been more programs about Iraq on Channel 4 this year?” says an ex-C4 staffer. “The channel still has a remit to be a cultural institution as well as a commercial broadcaster. Looking at the new regime I am not sure where the public service sensibility is going to come from.”
But Duncan has everything to play for. Inside C4 there is relief that a talented new CEO has been hired following a period of uncertainty and several high-profile exits, not least Thompson’s.
“We’re very excited to have him,” says one of the station’s commissioning editors. “Kevin is a good program director who will complement Andy well.”
A colleague adds: “It’s a very imaginative appointment, and Luke Johnson should be praised for delivering it.
“In the future we need to be both more commercial and more public service. I think the team is in place to square that particular circle.”