LONDON — The U.K.’s feisty pubcaster Channel 4 is used to generating headlines for its edgy fare, but of late the spotlight has focused on the network for its steady exodus of senior creative talent.
In the past two months, nine execs have announced their departure from Channel 4. Those leaving include Sue Murphy, head of features and factual entertainment, responsible for such signature shows as “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”; Hamish Mykura, head of documentaries; and Camilla Campbell and Robert Wulff-Cochrane, two of the most successful mavens working in British TV drama.
The brain drain is particularly noteworthy considering last summer’s cancellation of “Big Brother,” which has left the pubcaster with 300 or so hours to fill in its yearly schedule.
The latest upheavals have drawn attention to the difficulties Channel 4 faces as it attempts to forge a fresh editorial identity under chief creative officer Jay Hunt, who previously had spent 21 years at the BBC working in news before becoming controller of flagship channel BBC1.
“It’s a time of creative renewal and change at the channel and, after 11 months here, I felt some restructuring of the commissioning team was necessary,” she says. “In vibrant, creative organizations, people come and people go, and I think that some turnover of staff is important to keep the thinking fresh.”
Others in the gossip-laden bars of London’s Soho see things differently.
“By nature, Jay is not a collaborator,” says a longtime U.K. producer. “She is not very collegiate. It’s clear that she wants to get her own people in.”
Hunt denies the charge: “I try to create an environment where my team (knows) I will back them every step of the way, where people feel valued and included.”
As the U.K.’s second pubcaster, state-owned Channel 4 exists to provide some creative competition for the more establishment-minded BBC. It has made a name for itself by creating an agenda-setting nightly news show, combative public affairs coverage, and series that innovate, experiment and, occasionally, make mischief.
“Shameless,” the envelope-pushing blue-collar drama adapted for Showtime in the U.S., is quintessential Channel 4. But the show now has eight seasons under its belt in Blighty, and Hunt needs to find the next “Shameless.”
The biggest challenge remains finding a portfolio of successful shows to replace “Big Brother,” purged from the schedule in the summer of 2010.
Axing “Big Brother” presented Channel 4 with an opportunity to “let a hundred flowers blossom,” but too many of the blooms look the same as one another, says Times TV critic Andrew Billen, who adds that while the network has good shows, there’s too much reality fare.
One avenue open to Hunt’s predecessors that is closing, due to the aggressive buying strategy of pay TV giant BSkyB, is the smart use of top-drawer U.S. imports to sit alongside the homegrown slice-of-life reality fare and lifestyle series.
Not so long ago, Channel 4 was the place to find HBO dramas like “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” or other high-end U.S. broadcast skeins such as “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.”
And while Channel 4 did nab U.K. exclusive rights to U.S. sitcoms “New Girl” and “2 Broke Girls,” plus political thriller “Homeland,” nowadays these deals are the exception rather than the rule.
“It’s about clever buying, not how much you buy,” Hunt says.
But for Channel 4 to emerge from the shadow of “Big Brother,” it needs domestically created hits that build on the recent critical acclaim for new youth-skewed laffer “Fresh Meat,” as well as the kind of subversive drama Channel 4 has made its stock-in-trade, thanks to shows such as Shane Meadows’ “This Is England.”
“Their drama series are infrequent but usually excellent,” Billen says. “The recent gangland drama ‘Top Boy’ was as good as anything the BBC does. But Channel 4’s documentaries have a tendency to lack class and look underfunded.”
With annual program spending of around £600 million ($936 million) and November’s ad revenue for the first time hitting the £100 million ($156 million) mark, the web is far from impoverished.
When, then, will Hunt know she has succeeded in forging a post-“Big Brother” schedule at Channel 4?
“Inevitably it’s a mix of creative and performance success,” she says, citing shows like “Black Mirror,” “Top Boy,” “Mummify Alan” and “The Great Property Scandal,” and tubthumping the fact that the net has increased its year-to-year share.
She adds: “I want Channel 4 to be mischievous, innovative and brave. I want us to back great ideas and to dare to have a view on the big issues of the day. I want great creatives to feel there is only one place they feel at home, and that’s Channel 4.”
Meanwhile, industry watchers will be keeping an eye out for any more high-level exits.