One of the first people to publicly congratulate Alex Mahon on her appointment as Channel 4’s new chief executive was that crusader for diversity (and former children’s presenter) baroness Floella Benjamin, who tweeted that Mahon “will be brilliant as she is all embracing and a driver of diversity”.
Mahon, 43, retweeted the comment, as she knows how important embracing and maintaining diversity, one of Channel 4’s founding principles, is to the broadcaster, which some claim tarnished its reputation as a public service broadcaster when it splashed out £25m a year on securing the rights to the Great British Bake Off last year.
The appointment of Mahon – ahead of the favourite, Channel 4’s now departing creative director Jay Hunt – looks like a good one for Channel 4 as it looks to confront the challenges facing all traditional television companies and the task of moving all or major parts of the broadcaster out of the capital.
There is no doubt Mahon will have a busy in-tray – not least wrestling a slump in the TV ad market – but a cursory look through her CV tells of an executive who is both serious (PHD in medical physics), has corporate experience beyond TV (non-executive director at Ocado) and has earned her stripes running organisations, latterly as chief executive of the visual effects firm Foundry.
Crucially, she is not an insider – unlike two of her rivals for the job, Hunt and Channel 4 sales director Jonathan Allan – and so she will be able to make a clear-headed, objective decision on the right course for Channel 4 amid political pressure to move the commercially funded public service broadcaster out of London to Birmingham, Salford or Leeds.
Likewise, she will also be no ingénue when it comes to these negotiations, as she worked with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, on an advisory panel on the future of the BBC.
Channel 4 has a history of swooping on rivals for its chief executives (Andy Duncan and Michael Jackson were lured from the BBC, David Abraham from UKTV), but this time the broadcaster has appointed an executive sprinkled with Hollywood stardust.
Mahon has latterly been chief executive of Foundry, a company which provides those eye-popping visual effects for films like Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow.
Make no mistake about it, Mahon’s contacts book will be bulging with executives from Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures and Pixar, a fact which won’t be lost on her new bosses eyeing up possible film deals.
Not only that, Mahon was previously the boss of Shine, the maker of MasterChef and Broadchurch, two stalwarts of British TV, and having worked at Talkback Thames, the original maker of Channel 4 Grand Designs, she should be able to bring that knowledge and experience to bear in bringing in new programming for channel 4 and build on the acquisition of the Great British Bake Off.
Many of the headlines focused on the fact that Mahon is the first female to run Channel 4, but no glass ceiling has been broken here, as Dawn Airey and Jane Lighting have both run Channel 5 and Charlotte Moore holds a senior role at the BBC.
I think it can only be a good thing to have more women in such roles, as if nothing else it will encourage more women to follow suit.
Like any new broom, she will have to win over staff, some of whom would have wanted the soon-to-depart Hunt and Allan to get the job, as did Abraham himself.
She will also have go strike up a strong working relationship with Allan, so she can trust him to continue leading Channel 4’s trading arm, as she will have other priorities.
But if she can hit the ground running and put together a coherent strategy as to how Channel 4 can stem the tide of decreasing viewers and fight back against the like of Netflix and Amazon without losing sight of its remit to serve minorities and special interest groups, then she will soon will the doubters over.
Simon Kingsmill is investment director at December 19