The appointment of Alex Mahon as Channel 4’s chief executive may have surprised some in the industry, but past colleagues describe the former Foundry leader and production boss as a “powerful lady” with a “spirit of innovation” and a “unique combination of skills” that leaves the broadcaster in safe hands in the face of mounting challenges.
William Sargent, chief executive of FrameStore, the visual effects company that is a client of Foundry, said her appointment has all the hallmarks of an “imaginative choice”, that could see the broadcaster primed for a programming renaissance.
"Mahon is a very imaginative choice combining creativity and serious management talent in one powerful lady,” he said.
Likewise, Peter Fincham, former director of television at ITV, who was chief executive of Talkback Thames when Mahon worked there, said the industry should expect an “exciting new era for Channel 4” under her leadership, describing her as “smart, strategic and great fun to work with - an inspired choice”.
“She sets a breathless pace and it can be a challenge to keep up with her - and that’s if you’re her boss,” he added.
The former chief of visual effects technology company Foundry, Mahon has been described as exactly the calibre of chief executive that Channel 4 needs in an environment of perpetual technological change.
Despite this, her name did not feature much in the speculation of potential candidates for the job, which commentators mused was certain to go to the broadcaster’s own creative chief Jay Hunt.
But Mahon's selection, despite being a surprise, highlighted what Channel 4 accepts it needs in the next CEO; experience running a technology-based business, years of production knowledge, as well as sales and commercial experience.
In the face of a shifting TV landscape, it is incumbent on the next wave of broadcast leaders to be equally as competent leading technological advances, as they are in maintaining the quality and commercial appeal of traditional TV programming. With seven years of TV experience and nine years as chief executive of production giant Shine, as well as time served as an Ocado board member, Mahon is believed to be the perfect candidate to run Channel 4.
“Alex Mahon has a unique combination of skills and commercial experience of two of the most important challenges that Channel 4 faces in an age of infinite choice: sustaining creative innovation and leveraging digital technology,"said Claire Enders, founder, Enders Analysis. "Channel 4's unique public service broadcasting mission is in very safe hands."
Likewsie, Dan Keat, director of investment, m/SIX, said Mahon is “exactly the calibre of chief that broadcasters should be looking for today” given her wealth of tech experience that can insulate Channel 4 from the looming digital threat that has left no industry untouched.
Ad spend to the medium is slowing as the digital duopoly of Google and Facebook commands an ever-increasing share of total media spend. The future of linear TV has been cast into doubt as atypical players including social networks Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, as well as YouTube and Apple, are developing their own TV propositions. Meanwhile the ever-expanding presence of TV disruptors Netflix and Amazon is threatening broadcasters’ ability to bid for big-budget productions.
“The challenge for all the TV stations in the current climate is to remain ahead of the curve in terms of what quality content their audiences want to watch, on whatever platform, wherever and whenever they choose,” said Keat.
Her predecessor David Abraham had sought to overcome some of these challenges by increasing the broadcaster's content budget. In 2016 it spent a record £629m on all programming and content, with£455m of that on original content.
But Mahon's design and tech-focused skillset “differentiates her from both her Abraham and her counterparts at the other broadcasters”, added Keat.
Perhaps most crucially, her experience in tech is not at the sacrifice of understanding what makes good TV having worked across “the most challenging and competitive genres,” said James Herring, co-founder, Taylor Herring.
Mahon helped build up Shine into an international production giant with global hits like Masterchef and Broadchurch, and before that she spent seven years in the TV industry at TalkBack Thames, which produced popular shows including The X Factor and Channel 4’s Grand Designs, as well as FremantleMedia and RTL Group.
“Having previously led the production company, Shine, [she] has the necessary creative background credentials and should understand what it takes to grow a TV business through the development of quality programmes and successfully licensing those on a global scale - a prerequisite for her new role,” added Keat.
Mahon also has the business acumen necessary to make Channel 4’s digital operations, including its VOD player All4, a larger proportion of its overall revenue, having only ever worked for “international tech and high-growth businesses”. While Channel 4 has a higher proportion of digital revenues against its total revenues than ITV and STV, digital still only accounted for 8% of the business in 2015.
She has served as an Ocado board member since 2012, joining as an independent non-executive director and later becoming the board's designated senior independent director in April 2016.
Lord Stuart Rose, chair of the Ocado board, said: “Alex's invaluable contribution to the Ocado Board makes me confident that she will bring the same spirit of innovation to Channel 4, where I am sure she will be a very successful chief executive.”
Mahon's first test come her arrival in Autumn will be to find a replacement for Hunt, who departs in September.
She has big boots to fill in the creative space given what the Hunt has achieved in her seven years at the broadcaster; negotiating the broadcaster’s poaching of The Great British Bake Off from the BBC and is credited with sparking its creative renaissance since her arrival in 2011.
One thing is for certain: David Abraham is leaving Channel 4 in a better state that he inherited it in. Under Abraham, Channel 4’s total revenues have jumped from £830m to more than £1bn, while its flagship audience share increased for the first time in a decade.
Abraham also led the broadcaster’s resistance to the Government’s proposal to sell off the public company for £1bn in order to reduce the country's deficit, something Mahon may have to emulate in Channel 4’s fight against relocation.
With this in mind, Mahon is expected to "tweak" but not radically overhaul Channel 4, which against all odds is still a strong, agenda-setting broadcaster.