Alex Mahon

Alex Mahon speech to Media & Telecoms 2019 & Beyond

Category: Speech

Alex Mahon, Channel 4 Chief Executive - Speech to 'Media & Telecoms 2019 & Beyond - hosted by Deloitte and Enders Analysis'


Hello everyone. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.

I have 10 minutes or so, so I thought that should be plenty of time to solve the future of public service broadcasting, I mean how complicated can it be?  I thought I might talk about some of the challenges facing the TV sector as the digital landscape changes, and most importantly how we are addressing them at Channel 4.

In recent years, the emergence of new technology, super fast broadband, mobile devices and digital services have added to the fragmentation of the TV landscape.  And it is evident that it is already changing at the fastest rate we have seen in our lifetimes. That won’t stop.

Almost 50% of UK homes have Smart TV’s – ie. ones that can be logged in directly to digital services and do not require a provider. On top of that one-third of 16-34 year olds young adult have a smart stick or smart box.

Use of connected devices is obviously the norm -  about 60% of the UK live in Pay TV homes, and half of our homes have already got at least one Subscription Video On Demand service. In fact the trend of consumers paying for multiple services continues to increase – 35% of SVOD users pay for multiple services; for most of us that is Netflix plus Amazon Prime. And of course Netflix is even available on Sky now.

And, the effect of this sweeping change across the digital landscape has been to vastly increase the range of content available to audiences, and to make it available self scheduled and thus around the clock.   Consumers can now watch what they want, where they want, whenever they want.

All of this is changing the fastest for the younger audience. Their behaviour is not constrained by habits that pre-date the millennium. And as Channel 4 we have the youngest audience of any PSB in the world.

The positive of the explosion of choice and opportunity to watch means that younger audiences are watching MORE video content, not less – up by 17 minutes a day to 4 hours and 19 minutes a day for 16-34s. Yes that is 4 hours and 19 minutes a day of watching video. It’s amazing that anything else gets done! About half of this is TV content and the rest is YouTube, SVODs and social feeds.

Despite all of that increasing competition, Public Service Broadcasters continue to reach vastly more people in an average month than services such as YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Prime.  90% of UK 16-34s are reached by the PSBs and of course the mass reach we deliver still remains untouchable.

Given the stats I’ve just reeled off, you might find it suspiring that it turns out appealing to everyone is hard to do!

A single episode of Bake Off on Channel 4 alone, delivers more young commercial impacts than YouTube can, in the UK, in an entire day.

All of these huge structural and behavioural changes are a bit of a paradox for Channel 4.

Our brand, our channels and services already have huge reach and resonance with young people. We don’t need to create that, it already exists.

If you take the top 50 16-34 skewing shows on all the PSB channels last year more than two thirds were broadcast on Channel 4.

At the top of that list was The Circle, which we launched last year and which was our youngest profiling show since 2012.  Kind of amazing to be able to garner such a share of young audience given the competition. But definitely not easy!

Of course that list also contains many of the big, broad and entertaining shows you would expect to see there, like Hunted, SAS, Dispatches, documentaries like Prison and dramas like Hollyoaks and Ackley Bridge - programmes that have strong public service themes at their heart.

Channel 4 News has a particularly strong appeal to both young and black and Asian audiences – with the young accounting for 12% of viewing to the programme last year – well above the average 8% profile of viewing to national news programmes on other PSB channels.

This is particularly important given the proliferation of fake news, and at a time when young people are looking for trusted providers. 24% of Gen Z feel things they see on social media are true, compared to 40% in 2010.

They are searching for validated reporting and we can help address that. Half of 16-34s will head for traditional TV when they want to expand their world view.

Beyond our linear channels, our reach is growing too –All 4, the youngest profiling of all our services, grew by a record amount last year, the highest rate of growth in its history.

So, there is good news but it is very clear that we must not be complacent.

It is up to us to ensure we are shaping our business to future-proof it while still retaining our unique and distinctive role in British life.

There are three ways we are doing that at Channel 4.

  • Being clear about what our brand stands for, particularly the values and purpose.
  • Really clearly representing the UK – both on, and off screen.
  • And being the best creative partner we can be to work with.

I am going to talk a bit more about each of those.

The first area that we are focused on is our brand and what we represent.

Where PSBs provoke debate and inspire change, the global streaming services simply provide the most popular.

Where PSBs have a duty and a desire to serve the whole nation, the global streaming services serve their subscribers.

In a world of unlimited provision and ‘everything shops’, Channel 4 must be a stronger flavour and a clear proposition.

We have always had a mandate to take risks and offer an alternative.

It is in our DNA to be unashamedly noisy, distinctive and different. To stand for equality and diversity.   It is extremely clear who we are.

I’m proud of our nature to innovate; and of our editorial independence and the trust that this wins us.

91% of regular viewers see us as being independent from government and we rank in the top 3 most trusted news brands in the UK.

Last night we broadcast the first part of Leaving Neverland, a film commissioned by Channel 4 which has created headlines around the globe and it will change the way people think about Michael Jackson forever. 

This is exactly the kind of thing Channel 4 stands for – our distinctiveness delivered at scale – particularly to young audiences.

Next we have thought carefully how we can represent all of the UK.

Imagine if Channel 4 had been created today rather than in 1982. Do you really think the channel designed to promote inclusivity would have settled all of its staff in Westminster? The UK has changed radically in the last 40 years, in terms of opinion, politics, ethnic make-up, the Nations and indeed the role of London in relation to the rest of the UK.

This year we are opening a new headquarters in Leeds and creating new creative hubs in Bristol and Glasgow as part of our “4 All the UK” plan. We will soon be a very different balance of staff across the UK to the one we have had for the rest of our existence.

At the heart of the strategy is a major boost in our commissioning spend; rising to 50% of our commissioned programming spent outside of London. That represents up to a quarter of a billion pounds of extra investment in Nations & Regions content and will help support an extra 3,000 jobs in the production industry.

Inclusion and diversity is at the heart of everything that we do, on and off screen, and “4 All the UK” is a major step towards ensuring that all of the UK feels more at home with Channel 4.

It ensures that we sound more like our audience and we look more like the nation – building on the success of Hollyoaks, Ackley Bridge or Gogglebox and for the first time regularly co-anchoring Channel 4 News from places other than London.

It’s who we are, but it is not easy. 

However, we must respond to the Brexit divide which is going to be a generational issue in this country. 

For example, by being in Leeds, we can access the thriving digital industry and talent pool there.

Leeds will house our new Digital Creative Unit, which will commission and produce content for social and digital platforms.

It will ensure we are taking our shows to where younger audiences are spending more of their time

- on social and digital platforms -  and to experiment with new grassroots talent from all over the UK who may produce the Channel 4 shows of the future.

I’m thrilled to announce today the first content to be commissioned from the Digital Creative Unit is a new factual strand aimed at a young audience, 4Real.

This will be the first of a number of new content strands the unit will be commissioning and is about leveraging our brand and our creative expertise to appeal to our future audience on the platforms where they are.

The move to Leeds, Bristol and Glasgow expands the range of our partnerships and that is the key to getting the most out of a comparatively small organisation.

We have evolved our thinking so that we don’t think of other platforms, brands and organisations as solely competitors; we work with them as partners to maximise our brand among wider audiences.

There are all sorts of partnerships we can make and some of them will be surprising. We’re working with – not against – the likes of Facebook, Apple, Vice and LADbible to name but a few.

We’re doing deals that wouldn’t have been thought possible a few years ago – working with Sky to keep Formula 1 free to air on Channel 4,and bringing some of the biggest dramas to both platforms as boxsets so more viewers can see them.  Sharing our content with Sky shows how fast the industry is moving.

Or partnering to bring 100s of hours of original content from Vice and Adult Swim to All 4.

And of course we are having positive and constructive discussions with ITV and the BBC about how Channel 4 could partner with them to build the scale of Brit Box.

Internationally we are pooling our reach with ProSieben, TF1 and Mediaset in the European Broadcasting Exchange to sell across borders.

We’ve always done this with Film4 partnerships: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and the Favourite, which have both been critical and commercial successes and have been a triumph at the Oscars and the BAFTAs.

As part of the 4 All the UK strategy, we have also refocused the Indie Growth Fund on supporting the growth of the indie sector in the Nations and Regions.

Through the Commercial Growth Fund, we are continuing to help support new digital-based consumer businesses – like Festicket, Crowdcube or RatedPeople - with innovative airtime for equity partnerships.

All of this allows us to use our position to give back, support and fuel the growth of the British creative industries.

All of this is in the service of defending and promoting the role of public service broadcasting.

But we cannot do this alone.

Though the principles of public service broadcasting are unchanged, the foundations upon which it stands are weaker than they have been.

Channel 4 has always existed to be different. We exist to innovate, to take creative risks, to nurture new talent and champion diversity – and our focus is exclusively on commissioning content which has a cultural and social relevance with UK audiences.

So in a world where viewers are flooded with seemingly infinite on-demand content, how do we ensure that this important public service programming receives due prominence?

Government, regulators and policy-makers have not adapted to the pace of technological change that is fundamentally changing viewing behaviour.

Battles that were hard-fought and hard-won are now quietly being undone.

Public service broadcasters used to be top of the list of the electronic programming guide, the EPG.

Parliament carefully legislated on this and Ofcom was given the necessary powers to regulate.

That was and is crucial in giving viewers immediate access to programming that delivers the goals of public service broadcasting.

As the world keeps shifting to on demand content through smart TVs and streaming sticks, prominence is no longer secured by this regulation.

Here is a reminder of why this is important:  

We are sleepwalking into a position where public service content is no longer prominent.

This has a direct impact on viewers’ ability to access the well-regulated, trustworthy, impartial programming that has defined British television for decades.

And if you think of the damage that fake news has already done, I think we should all find that deeply concerning. Public service television matters.

Like so many industries, we are facing the great challenge of our generation’s technological revolution.

In many ways, it has brought great promise and creative opportunity.

But it also threatens what is good in our society: a belief in reaching beyond the majority and reflecting the needs of everyone.

The promise of public service broadcasting, that was one of the great, pioneering social decisions of British political and public life, and one we are rightly proud of.

Our role now is to defend these values and ensure public service content remains relevant to the modern world – in our programming, our partnerships and our platforms.

It’s a big challenge and an utter privilege.

Thank you so much for listening to me today.