Ex-food exec’s recipe for C4 success

Duncan plan pushes commercial, public service aims

LONDON — In six short months the energetic and affable Andy Duncan, the new CEO of Channel 4, has moved fast to exert his grip on the U.K.’s third-most-popular terrestrial web and the only real creative competition for the mighty BBC.

Duncan is only 41 but looks younger. Since his unexpected appointment last summer, when he beat more experienced candidates to land what is arguably the most challenging job in British TV by dint of Channel 4’s hybrid nature, he has made changes that could have profound effects.

C4 is a commercially funded pubcaster obliged to air edgy fare and push the envelope.

Current hits include “Shameless,” a subversive blue-collar drama scripted by the highly rated Paul Abbott, and U.S. net ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”

Since it is a small player compared with dominant commercial broadcaster ITV or pubcaster the BBC, with a 9.7 average share of total viewing, and with the emergence of digital TV has forced C4 to think hard about the future.

Duncan’s responses to these challenges have included dumping a merger with commercial web Five and redrawing its digital strategy. C4 has implemented a new structure that sees commercial arm 4 Ventures continuing to stand alone with a $54 million annual profit target, while other operations — including digital nets E4 and FilmFour — will be integrated into the core public-service division.

Controversially, it also has launched a campaign for a state handout or, at the very least, a tie-up with the mooted Channel 6, or Public Service Publisher, as its backers call it.

Good going for a man who entered the TV industry under four years ago.

Before joining the BBC as its head of marketing, where he helped propel the fast-growing digital terrestrial Freeview service into public consciousness, Duncan worked for consumer giant Unilever selling margarine and pot noodles.

“I think Andy has surprised everyone by the impact he’s had on Channel 4 in such a short space of time,” says a British TV veteran. “What is also remarkable is that Duncan, who spent most of his career marketing food and drink products, is wearing his public service broadcasting badge with pride.”

Skeptics assumed Duncan would make C4 more commercial and less public service.

Instead, he’s attempting, paradoxically, to make C4 both more commercial and more public service.

He has set aggressive targets for the outfit’s commercial ventures. C4 is seeking partnerships in new media and consumer products while simultaneously beefing up its public service offering.

This involves launching a broadband-delivered documentary service aimed at encouraging new filmmakers and an upscale digital niche net for the 35-plus audience, More4.

It appears to be working. Last week Duncan won partial backing from the U.K. regulator, the Office of Communications (Ofcom), which will help in the run-up to digital switchover in 2012 and leaves the door open for a cash handout.

“The jury is still out on if Channel 4 really needs public money to ensure its survival,” opines an Ofcom insider. “We can’t yet tell if competition means it will become marginalized or whether it can continue to sell its airtime at a premium because of its popularity with younger audiences.

“It only takes a modest tweak in the economic modeling to suggest (as Duncan has done) that Channel 4 faces a £100 million ($186 million) shortfall by 2008-9.”

In the short term, C4’s finances are robust. On Feb. 10 Duncan announced $36 million in new investment for loss making spin-off web, E4, a rise of about 50% on its annual budget, some of which will be spent on much-needed U.S. acquisitions now that “Friends” has wrapped.

With Duncan’s predecessor, Mark Thompson, having cut costs by culling staff numbers from 1,100 to 800, the new CEO says there is little room for further economies. He insists planned expansions will be accomplished by efficiencies.

Meanwhile, Ofcom will continue to monitor C4 before deciding if the outfit needs a leg up from the public purse.

“Ofcom’s report was a major win for us,” Duncan insists. “It provides us with a roadmap for the future and gives us strong support for our strategy of strengthening and extending our unique public service contribution across all media platforms.”

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