Sean Penn Drama ‘The First’ Was ‘Unrelatable’ to British Audiences, Channel 4 Exec Says

The First -- "The Choice" - Episode 107 - Tom and the Providence crew must make a choice with potentially life-threatening consequences. Matteo wrestles with his past. Tom and Denise must deal with unfinished business. Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) and Nick Fletcher (James Ransone), shown. (Photo by: Alan Markfield/Hulu)

Channel 4’s director of programs Ian Katz says the British broadcaster has learned a good lesson from the failure last year of its big-budget Hulu co-production “The First” to resonate with U.K. audiences.

Speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Katz described the Sean Penn-starring drama about a mission to Mars as a “really classy piece of work with a big star and Hollywood production values.” But he said the drama was “unrelatable” to a British audience.

“It was possibly born of a moment where lots of British broadcasters were thinking that the way we can compete in this very challenging drama market is to co-produce with big American broadcasters and streamers,” Katz said. That “was probably an example of a show where that desire to produce something really glossy got in the way of thinking about what really connected with a British audience.”

In contrast, he said that Channel 4 is now looking across the U.K. “for stories that are profoundly locally resonant but that have a universality that grips us all,” citing its hit comedy “Derry Girls” from Northern Ireland and playing up the broadcaster’s decision to open a national headquarters outside of London, in Leeds.

He also said Channel 4 would “double down” on its reality format “The Circle” when it returns this year, adding more live elements and broader casting. The social experiment struggled at launch last year on the main channel, but won audiences on its catchup service, All4. Katz said it was the youngest-profiling show on any public service broadcaster in the U.K. last year, and the challenge for the second series is to bring a wider audience to the show.

He also cited upcoming series “The British Tribe Next Door,” a format which relocates a British family, their house and their possessions into a remote Namibian tribal village, as an example of the shows that he is looking for at Channel 4. He said he wanted shows that “got into big issues in unbelievably inventive and sometimes provocative ways.”