Channel 4 CEO warns not to neglect creative risk or underestimate the importance of data in MacTaggart Lecture

By Gillian West | Social media manager

August 21, 2014 | 3 min read

"A TV channel without a data strategy is like a submarine without sonar," warned Channel 4 chief executive, David Abraham in his James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at this year's Edinburgh International Television Festival which outlined his argument for British creativity and the divisive action he thinks is necessary to strengthen the industry.

In his address, Abraham spoke of the UK's "unique and precious balance" between the creative and commercial value of the television industry. With American conglomerates increasingly attracted to British investment Abraham deemed free-to-air channels as this year's "must have accessories, the tiny dogs" of US media companies.

"UK production has turned in 20 years from an ugly duckling to a very valuable goose indeed," he said, before addressing two "crucial" points. The ability to push creative boundaries enabled by "enlightened politicians and regulators backed by huge public support", and how the PSB system is now at risk of becoming a "victim of its own success".

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"While UK production is an undoubted commercial success story, I wonder if it will continue to be a creative one," he remarked. "Scale demands an increased focus on cost-cutting and margins. Reformatting ideas is more efficient than the messy business of finding new ones. Fear of risk overtakes an appetite for it."

Moving on to discuss Channel 4 specifically and it's remit to be "innovative and distinctive" Abraham revealed that the broadcaster's coverage of the 2012 Paralympics served to reaffirm his belief in the channel's relevance "now as it's ever been - even in a world of hundreds of homogenous channels and the internet."

With 11 million people signed up to 4oD, Abraham commented that data was an area Channel 4 was wholeheartedly embracing as it enabled the broadcaster to "fight off those who would burgle the relationship that our viewers have with our brands and productions".

"When broadcasters separate online brands from channel brands they end up doing the splits...the future is not either the decline of linear or the rise of on-demand...it will be a blend of both," he said before revealing that from next year Channel 4 will "seamlessly unite all our channels and services in one place in the online world...After all, it wasn't just Channel 4, but our entire digital estate, that delivered the power of the Paralympics."

Abraham concluded his lecture by outlining two areas of "real difference" where "Public service broadcasting (PBS) investment is the Nation's investment". The first of which he said was a fair deal on platform relations, where PSB channels are valued as much as paid channels, and the second was a fair deal on terms of trade, to allow PSBs to grow commercial value and share that value fairly.

"This special landscape of ours did not, as I have said, happen by accident. So we should not assume that, left purely to the market, it will continue to thrive. To keep the PSB system growing we need to nurture it, not neglect it."

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