Channel 4’s new director of programmes Ian Katz made his first major public appearance since he landed the job last October with a vision for the channel – and a raft of new shows.
In his barnstorming speech to an audience of TV executives, producers and journalists at London’s South Bank Centre, he unveiled C4’s new offerings. They included a two-hour drama about Brexit starring Benedict Cumberbatch, an exciting-looking entertainment show fronted by Grime MC Big Narstie and a new series called Kathy Burke: All Woman in which the actress and director will examine what it means to be female in modern Britain.
As well as that, there’s a £10m boost for scripted comedy – Katz wants C4 to be the “unequivocal home of youthful original British comedy” – and a focus on new faces. A pilot of a late-night satirical news programme hosted by Deborah Frances-White looks particularly promising – as does the Big Narstie show. Katz proudly showed the audience some clips of the latter – and they are really funny. It looks like Big Narstie could be a presenting fixture for them for many years to come and good thing too.
As well as this, there will also be a reality TV show called The Circle, in which contestants compete to become the most popular individual on a social network without ever actually meeting.
But, without wishing to rain on Katz’s parade – and while much of the programming looks innovative and exciting (thus delivering on the channel’s core remit) – there were some things that were left out on the day.
For one thing, Katz had hardly a word to say about arts or religious or history programmes, there wasn’t much in the way of music shows and drama didn’t get much of a look in (apart from the Cumberbatch series). And even The Great British Bake Off, one of the broadcaster’s biggest and most audacious successes when it poached it from the BBC, barely got a mention.
“We are lucky that the huge success of Bake Off has afforded us some space to experiment elsewhere, but we will be working hard in other parts of the schedule to generate the ratings headroom to take more risks,” said Katz, almost as if the success of Bake Off wasn’t an end in itself. What he wanted to do, he said, was “dial up the difference” in the flavour of C4’s output.
According to C4 sources, the success of Love Island on ITV2 has shaken Channel 4 which would love an equivalent hit. It has also shown the channel that there is an audience of young people – they will come and watch scheduled TV if the programmes are right.
E4, Katz went on, is now the country’s “strongest youth brand in linear TV” and would also be getting extra funding. And it’s great. E4 does some good work, serving its audience. But Channel 4 is a distinctive entity – broader in scope. And Channel 4’s dilemma in the coming years is that it mustn’t morph into E4 in its pursuit of the fresh and the new and (the holy grail of all TV commissioning editors) the 16-34 youth audience. Yes, they are the future, but one cannot help but feel that the accent on youth on Channel 4 cannot become too powerful under the new boss.
Katz seemed to pre-empt this when he said: “E4 will be the main focus of our efforts to grow young share but on Channel 4 our emphasis will be on reaching younger viewers through broad, popular shows at 8 and 9[pm], and spikier, younger shows at 10[pm].”
But what about older viewers? C4 is a national broadcaster and it could be argued that Katz needs to be mindful that they are also part of the mix it must serve – not just those hungry for “younger, spikier” shows.
It’s series like Bake Off and early evening staples like Grand Designs and Location, Location, Location that pay a large part of the channel’s bills – or allow it to “wipe its face” as Katz’s formidable predecessor Jay Hunt used to put it.
It’s a big task running a channel and Ian Katz has a tough job. A newspaper journalist for most of his career, he only has four years’ experience working in TV, as editor of Newsnight. His stratospheric elevation, and the trickiness of the task in hand, means that whatever he does gets extra scrutiny.
Because, as he admitted on Wednesday, he is inheriting a channel in “very good health”, so he won’t be able to blame his predecessors as Jay Hunt could when she took over Channel 4’s programmes in 2011, when its viewing share was in decline and it was feeling the pinch from the loss of Big Brother. Katz has a wonderful train set in his hands. His biggest job is making sure that it doesn’t get derailed in the pursuit of edge, spike and youth. Wonderful and important as those things are.