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MipFormats: Channel 4’s Alex Mahon on Reinventing Unscripted TV in Netflix Era

Alex Mahon, chief executive of Britain’s Channel 4, said Saturday that producers and broadcasters need to work together to move the unscripted genre forward, as has already happened on the scripted side. Giving a MipFormats keynote interview in Cannes, to a room of mostly unscripted producers and distributors, the former Shine boss said there was work to be done to remain relevant in a world where the digital giants have changed consumer expectations.

“What do you need now? You need the best creative minds who are quite fleet of foot, and that’s what scripted has done actually, more than we have in unscripted,” she said. “I think that’s the challenge to us on the non-scripted side: How can we come up with formats that are less repetitive in the ways of the talent show and the studio show?”

She added that hit shows are getting bigger, but the industry needs to create an environment where new ideas can break through. “Whilst one might think with so many shows – peak television – [that] the market is more fragmented, what we’re seeing is big shows are getting bigger. ‘Bake Off’ is massive for us, ‘Blue Planet II’ on the BBC gets a bigger audience than ‘Blue Planet I, ‘Roseanne’ in the U.S. is getting massive audiences,” she said.

In an environment where the biggest shows stand out, responsibility lies with producers to generate ideas and broadcasters to create space to experiment. “The best creative ideas come when you can sort of hold hands and take the creative risk together, and sometimes the adversarial [nature] of the relationship stops that happening,” Mahon said.

Five months into running the advertiser-funded pubcaster, Mahon said linear TV has a unique ability to build brands, but needs to adapt as the digital players have changed consumer tastes and viewing habits. “The question is, before we move to a fully digital environment, how do we use those linear assets to keep building brands and how do we invest more in technology to get our platforms up to standard?” Mahon said.

“We are in that transition period, and on my watch we’ll go through that transition,” she added. “Technology platforms have changed consumer relationships. Twitter has changed the length of time of a video or text a consumer will get involved in. YouTube has changed the quality of production values people will accept. Netflix has change the emotional connection people have with content.”

In that environment, being distinctive and relevant is crucial. “The concept of distinctiveness in a post-Netflix world is more important than ever, and for us that’s got to be as well, with the concept of relevance,” Mahon said. “It’s ‘Why are you relevant anymore, why does the audience need you, what do you provide to the market that others don’t?’ That comes for us from taking new creative risk, and breaking new talent, and ensuring we represent everyone in the U.K.”

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