Alex Mahon speech to the RTS Cambridge Convention

Category: News Release

When we gather at events like this, we discuss something called the “British television landscape”. I am generally comforted by hearing Channel 4 described as a ”vital part of that landscape” and it’s of course true. But I do sometimes wonder about that word: ‘landscape’. It is perhaps a little bit woolly? A little unspecific? What is it - exactly?

When we pan out we see this broad British landscape and it looks familiar and of course it feels like home. But what happens if you zoom in?

Then, you’ll see that our territory is made up of something else. Or rather lots of something elses. It is an aggregate – a collection of multiple smaller landscapes, of varied localities – that together create our national richness. Each one relevant to itself and often its neighbours, each containing something important not just to those within it, but also universal – stuff that’s relevant to the whole, zoomed out landscape.

The direction of travel in television, in digital, in business though, is generally global. So, if you’re looking at something that isn’t global, people can be tempted to dismiss it. Something that is ‘local’ sounds a bit, well, irrelevant, a bit quaint, perhaps a bit retro. Local people, issues, newspapers, local government: they all sound like they don’t quite matter in the scheme of things.

Taken one by one, their relevance isn’t so obvious. Local starts to assumed to be parochial. On their own, localities lack heft, power or influence.

Of course, any perception of scale is relative. If you are Reed Hastings, or Bob Iger looking at the globe that might exist in his office, then all of Britain is one of many locals.  The same view if you look at us from the Baidu, Huawei or TenCent campuses.

And whether it’s from the West Coast or from the Eastern tech investors, the direction of travel is obviously not local. It’s all about scale and control. About arming themselves with the tech and financial firepower to be the biggest. Getting content to work ‘trans-territory’. Scaling it right round the world with as little need to adapt it for each market as possible.

From some angles, television seems to be following the same model as the global food and drink industry: where the secret of success is simplicity. It’s about distributing the same recipe to lots of different markets.

Don’t get me wrong – this is clearly a very successful model. It’s funded a golden age of television and film content. More, more, more.

But perhaps as viewers we should be a wary of a future controlled by just the biggest players in tech.  A world where content is consumed mainly on iOS and Android or searched for on Google or Alexa and a very few companies control what you watch, and serve their own content and services first in commercial priority above anything else.

Who can blame them? – it makes better business sense to surface first the content they make the best returns on, whether it’s Amazon boosting its own products on  Google prioritising its own podcast service, or Netflix serving us its own productions.

If that’s something like Orange is the New Black, When They See Us or Stranger Things that’s great.  When the streamers are good they’re very very good.  But alongside the hero titles there’s an awful lot of the same: whether it’s drugs lords, mass killers, real crime or heist thrillers – a mix that I suspect is not entirely representative of anyone’s day to day.

The economics of this trans-territory filler work – Netflix can stitch together one big audience from a set of separate, disassociated audiences in different markets.  However in doing that they may end up without the content that has piquancy to large domestic audiences, that resonates in a way that’s big enough to be important to our whole society. The global telly of the future will not be - and isn’t being - designed to reflect Britain back to itself, to bring the nation together at particular moments, to inform and educate a particular society or to care about promoting any kind of social cohesion.

The move to localism

At the same time as this though, in many other areas of business, the focus of growth is in fact on localism. It’s on nurturing the relevance and the appeal of products made with special care and skill in one location and exhibiting them to a much bigger market. It is a search for universal meaning and universal fascination even in the smallest places. A return to craft, to the atelier, to the boutique.

Craft beer. Boutique gin. Atelier perfume houses. All of that sounds pretty good to me. Their appeal is vast and growing and while it is not inimical to growth, it does not depend on scale to succeed.

These craft products grow because of, not despite, their grassroots foundations, their independence and the fact that they are embedded in smaller creative communities. The key is to expand the appeal of the particular, without altering its inherent qualities, and export it beyond its locality to become general. Conserving what makes a product special in its own place while making it accessible in a much bigger place.

Whether it’s beer or television, I think the antidote to blandness is to find relevance in a different set of values: innovation, distinctiveness, experimentation, diversity. Those values are what can bring relevance.

If that list sounds familiar, it is. These things are, of course, part of the remit of Channel 4. They are our reason for being. And they are a constant all through our history.

Channel 4 exists to find the new and the unknown –  the unheard voice, the unrecognised face and the untold tale, and then to give them a national platform and turn it into part of the mass market conversation, especially with young people.  We remain one of the very few organisations who can take something or someone we have never heard of and lift it from obscurity to national visibility.  An organisation that has the taste and ability to build and launch genuinely new brands from zero.

We often find the content that we create and nuture ends up growing and expanding elsewhere – like Black Mirror, Top Boy or The Circle are doing on Netflix.

And we remain a brand building machine, able to create and build new brands with a freshness and a relevance from scratch – for both content producers and for advertisers.

Shifting societal need

Whilst the role of Channel 4 over the last few decades has remained constant, in a world of huge socio-economic and technological changes, the need for us is greater than ever.  

Our audience is changing, and because we are the youngest PSB in the world it is changing faster than elsewhere.  Our 16-34 profile is more than double that of the BBC’s. We need to be more responsive, and we have to move faster to be more connected to their needs, and to be what and where they want. 

Data tells us that the lived experiences and attitudes of a young person today are markedly different to those of 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.

What is most striking from the research is the level of uncertainty felt by the current generation of 16-25 year olds.

This period of economic and political instability combined with digital change is having huge impact.

They are finding it harder than ever before to buy homes[1] and they worry they will never be financially stable[2].

Their experiences and expectations of work and education have changed radically. They have less job security - rising levels of young people are in lower-paying occupations[3] or on zero contract hours[4].

Young people are more likely to experience stress and mental health difficulties. Almost two thirds of young people said they “always” or “often” feel stressed, that figure has risen from just 28%in 2010.

This is most likely exacerbated by being the first generation to feel the impact of having been raised on social media. The Princes Trust found that 57 per cent of 16-25 year olds believe social media creates an “overwhelming pressure” to succeed, while 46 per cent say that comparing their lives to their friends on social media makes them feel “inadequate”.

So, the challenges facing young people today are specific and complex. Rising levels of instability fuelled by politics, the economy and technology, aligning with personal anxieties. Their power is in flux – no longer able to seek comfort and security from traditional institutions, they look for other places they can take control of their lives. Things like veganism, social campaigning, choosing their gender identity.

Filling the gap

Crucially amidst all of this uncertainty, they need brands and content providers they can trust to help them navigate these challenges. That can grasp the issues they are facing and can present them in ways that feel relevant, that feel local to their needs while also being wide in appeal.

If this isn’t going to be provided by the streamers, can we rely on YouTube fill this gap?  As the data we saw earlier from Ed Williams showed, it’s a mainstay of their diet.   It has vast amounts of content and can be highly personalised and highly localised.  But the viewing is fragmented and siloed, the content is largely unfiltered and often of a different calibre – it can sit alongside the misleading, the dishonest and the harmful.  It might well offer content for every niche interest known to mankind, but its desire to contribute to the national conversation is questionable.

Even more important I would say in this maelstrom, that Channel 4 exists – an organisation set up to deliver challenging public service content with particular appeal to young and diverse groups.

It’s exactly why we look to tackle the big issues affecting modern Britain in a way that others either don’t, or don’t do in an engaging way for young viewers.  That might be homelessness with 60 Days on the Street, mental health in comedies like This Way Up or Flowers,  gender identity with Genderquake – or perhaps Hollyoaks which has tackled all of those subjects and a lot more in the UK’s only soap targeted at young people, and which was delightfully and rightly crowned soap of the year this year.  

On Monday night, we launched Crime and Punishment – a searing and in-depth examination of the British criminal justice system which the Observer called “a vital, harrowing watch on the prison industry and its cavernous pitfalls.”.  Precisely the sort of subject matter Channel 4 is here to tackle, and territory that perhaps would not be top of the list for streamers looking for trans-territory hits.

And what about the biggest issue inter-generational issue of our lifetime, Brexit? As well as keeping viewers informed on the award-winning Channel 4 News, we’ve offered viewers greater analysis and broader views in programmes spanning our programme genres – from Channel 4’s acclaimed drama Brexit: The Uncivil War to our regular series of audience debates, through to next week’s documentary Tories at War or an upcoming comic documentary from Kieron Hodgson looking at how we got into Europe in the first place and what that tells us.

The global SVODs, by comparison, could never be expected to take the decision to commission a swathe of programming looking at Brexit across multiple genres, given the low likely demand for such content outside the UK or in secondary windows in the UK over time.

And yet, Brexit will shape the lives of everyone in the UK, and the younger generation in particular. Brexit has served to expose how we are relevant to the lives, concerns, interests of our audiences in a way that streamers simply aren’t, don’t want to be and indeed simply cannot be.

Next generation of 4

And we’ll continue to provide output unmatched in its relevance. We have helped Britain produce the most distinctive, inventive and successful landscape of independent television in the world. So successful that as the chase for content has intensified globally, the biggest names in global entertainment came calling here. And that’s great. It’s a complement to our system and ensures British voices are heard in every major boardroom of the creative world. It provides investment and expansion. It allows more growth and more innovation.

But one of the best things about success, promotion and expansion is that they produce vacancies.  A new generation of indies emerges. Fresh and even more diverse talent, ideas and voices that we haven’t heard before are out there waiting for their chance. And Channel 4’s role is to be there to discover, support and give them a nationwide voice – wherever they are from.

Channel 4 must be more than a remote observer of the UK and that is precisely why we are opening new bases in Leeds, Bristol and Glasgow this autumn and increasing our investment and presence in the Nations & Regions.

Being part of a new landscape of innovation and risk is not just what we enjoy, but what we were made for.

Yet we weren’t made to be inward-looking. Parochialism is an anathema. We were made and instructed by the UK parliament to have as much impact socially as possible and be as connected as we could be.

Look at Derry Girls. On the face of it a comedy set in the midst of the Troubles in 1990s Northern Ireland might not seem like natural territory for a national hit; yet it was our biggest comedy in 15 years and has a universal resonance which is now helping it become an international hit. 

And at a time when our young audience is changing faster than ever, we are moving faster and more nimbly to partner with others so that we can deliver more from our content, our distribution, marketing and our advertising.  Collaboration with Sky has helped us keep Formula One on free to air TV and will allow us to offer more addressability to our advertisers.  Collaboration with PACT and indies has delivered a new Terms of Trade deal with benefits for both producers and viewers. Working with indies means we can move rapidly as tastes change.  And collaborating globally with filmmakers and distributor partners has helped Film 4 films pick up 19 Oscars in the last 11 years.    

In our future, I see us deriving the benefits – not just for ourselves, but for our owners, the British people – of this unique ability to be both authentically local, powerfully national and genuinely international.

In this age of Brexit there is much criticism of being “inward looking”. But if you don’t reflect people’s lives to them by entering their own personal landscapes and drawing the universal out of them, what do you get? You get Us and Them.

Over the last two days we have seen the challenges facing the industry today in the hard data that the RTS excels in.

The new and expanded landscape presents new opportunities that we should celebrate but, if we want British television to continue to be both relevant to and trusted by our audience we should continue to cherish and support Public Service Broadcasters.

We are a vital counterweight to the growing concentration of power in the hands of just a few tech behemoths who increasingly want to decide what we read, watch and listen to.

After all, to return to the beer analogy, do we really want to find a bottle of Budweiser waiting for us on the bar before we even decide which bar to walk into?  Personally I’d rather the craft beer and the choice.

Thank you for listening.


[1] home ownership among 25-34 year olds has shrunk massively from 67% in 1991 to 37% in 2019

[2] Over half of 16-25 year olds worry they will never be able to plan ahead financially.

[3] The Resolution Foundation found that the share of 18-29 year olds working in relatively lower-paying occupations has risen from below 30 per cent to almost 40 per cent since the early 1990s –

[4] in 2018 (Apr-Jun) there were 261,000 16-24 year olds on a zero hours’ contracts – up from 235,000 in 2014