Former Channel 4 head Michael Jackson questioned the current chief executive David Abraham at a TV Festival event which asked whether the station is still rebellious as it heads towards its thirtieth birthday. In response to his predecessor's robust interrogation, Abraham maintained that Channel 4 is in rude health and will continue to be the country's most innovative broadcaster.
In his introductory remarks, Jackson reminded the audience that Channel 4's original mission when it began broadcasting in 1982 was to challenge the "complacency of the BBC and ITV" and even though the landscape has changed immeasurably since then, he maintains that this is still its core task.
Abraham endorsed Jackson's view that Channel 4's advent was one of the most important moments in the history of British broadcasting: "it was the second occasion in my lifetime that television moved from monochrome to colour".
The chief executive said it was significant that Channel 4's arrival was part of a revolution that brought about a wholesale change in the way that programmes were made, a shift that "liberated the means of production from the dominant broadcasting duopoly". A change that continues to be felt to this day.
Abraham has an interesting response to Channel 4's steady loss of audience share: he feels that a straightforward viewer count is outmoded. Instead he prefers to think in terms of audience engagement. A greater synergy between Channel 4's programming, its web presence and its online scrapbook has created a meaningful interaction between the station and its viewers and, according to the Chief Executive, this data makes advertising on his channel a more attractive proposition.
A recurring theme of Jackson's questions was the idea that Abraham's Channel 4 is overly concerned with commercial considerations. Abraham denied the charge but conceded that he has a responsibility to balance the books: "running Channel 4 is not a process of endless pragmatism and compromise but every week we have to bring the money in." Furthermore, he believes "it’s a miracle that Channel 4 has maintained its footprint without imposing on the tax payer".
Jackson boasted that when he was in charge of the station he fielded a phone call from Tessa Jowell complaining about Brass Eye and asked Abraham if he'd ever had a similar experience. Jackson seemed unimpressed by Abraham's revelation that Channel 4 News's coverage of atrocities in Sri Lanka had drawn praise from David Cameron.
There was criticism too of some of the station's current output. Although Jackson acknowledged that "Minipops remains Channel 4’s greatest ever embarrassment," he said he'd recently watched Million Pound Drop and wanted to know "what’s that doing on Channel 4?" Abraham defended the programme by highlighting the viewer engagement it promotes.
When asked whether he was frightened by Sky's decision to promote original programming, David Abraham declared it a good thing because the people to whom he has to say "no" now have somewhere else to go; but he conceded he'd be unhappy if Sky got hold of content that Channel 4 wanted for itself.
Jackson's final question invited Abraham to identify the programme that best summed up Channel 4. Without hesitation, the chief executive named Black Mirror, a trilogy of dark comedies penned by Charlie Brooker. One of the three episodes featured a scene in which the Prime Minister has sex with a pig - if he keeps airing programmes like that, Abraham may yet receive the accolade of a furious ministerial phone call.