Channel 4 boss Alex Mahon on achieving diversity – on screen, behind scenes and among viewers
The Drum catches up with Channel 4 chief exec Alex Mahon to hear how, in the latter days of Covid, the broadcaster is committed to creating an equitable workplace that’s as representative of the UK as its programming.
For decades, Channel 4 has held its own as the cool younger sibling of British broadcasting, remaining committed to its statutory public service remit to innovate, stimulate public debate, reflect the UK’s cultural diversity and champion alternative points of view in its programming, all while nurturing new and diverse talent in the industry.
It follows that Channel 4 strives for these values of diversity, equitability and creating an open and honest dialogue throughout its operations, and has put this into effect by implementing workplace policies, including rules around agile working, a mental health awareness week, a menopause policy and a recently-introduced pregnancy loss policy, alongside its ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion both on and off-screen.
As chief executive officer Alex Mahon tells The Drum, these efforts are entirely in line with the channel’s broadcasting values because “simplistically, if you are only staffed by people from a certain background with a certain postcode, they will not represent your viewers and neither will your content, and you will not be commercially successful”.
Diverse minds make diverse content
Mahon emphasizes that it is not possible for Channel 4 to fulfill its obligation to represent the UK on-screen without doing so behind the scenes.
“Our viewers are at the heart of our decision making and these issues – equitability, a level playing field in the UK, the representation of young people and the issues they care about, particularly diversity and inclusion – are incredibly important to our viewers and our audience, so it’s about putting that at the heart of our decision making around how we make content.”
And it is starting to see the fruits of its labor. Where Channel 4 has invested in shows fronted and created by Black, Asian and other minority ethnic talent, it has seen a correlation in increased views from people of those demographics.
“If you look at what we’ve done on-air for BAME representation and the kinds of shows we’ve made – which all come from the people who work here – then it’s no surprise our ratings have gone up from BAME viewers.
“When we staff ourselves with more young, digitally-minded people, then our ratings go up with those people too.”
Indeed, in 2020 the share of the channel’s audience of people from Black and other minority ethnic backgrounds grew by 3% and its share of people in the 16-34 age category grew by 4%.
Mahon says that with the investment Channel 4 has made in creative hubs outside of London, the next area in which it expects to see further growth is in viewers from the nations and regions – but, she stresses, “as we’ve seen with all the other audiences we seek to represent, it does take time”.
Commitments to leveling the playing field within the workplace will contribute to this, as “agile working and having the tech in place to do that is also a great geo-leveler”.
“By changing our ways of working, by having things such as meeting-free Fridays, a 90-minute all-company lunch break and meeting caps of 50-minutes – all those things are about being able to accommodate a whole range of different people from different places within the workplace.”
Life after Covid
Mahon also suggests that the pandemic has accelerated the broadcaster’s efforts to move away from a London-centric mode of production, as “people are really starting to let go of the idea that the only ‘proper’ jobs are in London”.
“We always knew that, but now other people are starting to wake up to it, which is certainly going to make everything easier.”
However, as was the case for most organizations, the pandemic meant that 2020 began as a tumultuous year for Channel 4, with the public service broadcaster facing cuts, stalls in production and company-wide furloughs for staff.
As Mahon explains, though, in the face of tough decisions it remained committed to putting its people above profit: “We maintained a very clear position that we were going to take care of our staff. That involved making them the focus and when we put in place our decision-making hierarchy around Covid and crisis management, that was the thing we put at the top that would rule every decision made – above making money or being commercially successful.”
This stance saw Channel 4 keep all staff on 100% pay, regardless of whether or not they were furloughed, and it conducted regular surveys around remote working and created a future-of-work plan with the involvement of over 300 staff members.
Against the odds, 2020 was a record-breaking year across the board. Viewing of All4, its on-demand service, climbed 30% from 2019, and linear views also went up by 4% alongside the increase in viewers from the 16-24 age category and minority ethnic backgrounds. The year brought smash cultural hits including its LGBT+ centered drama It’s a Sin, which saw Channel 4’s January figures skyrocket and made it the broadcaster’s most popular drama launch on record.
Pushing for change
With 2020 also a year of mass social and political upheaval, she says the channel was obligated to respond to with sensitivity.
“Outside of the pandemic we had to look carefully at how we were representing the movement for Black Lives Matter, which has culminated in a huge day we have coming up called Black to Front where everything will be fronted by Black talent, as well as created by Black crews.”
This is in line with the six commitments to anti-racism Channel 4 made in June last year, pledging to re-double its efforts to improve diversity and representation both in its organization and on screen.
The commitments span the channel’s own employment targets as well as positions on representative content and its responsibility as an advertiser-funded broadcaster to ensure diverse representation in advertising. These are in addition to the diversity and inclusion targets the channel outlined in 2019 that also encompass its own workforce, on-screen representation and its aims to lead the industry through initiatives that will support new talent.
The broadcaster has already been actively pushing diversity and breaking taboos in advertising through its Diversity in Advertising Award, which launched in 2016. Annually it awards £1m of commercial airtime to an ad that focuses on a group underrepresented by UK advertising.
This year, EA Sports and its creative agency Adam&EveDDB were crowned the winners for their portrayal of British Asians in football.
Mahon concludes that, at the heart of it, these commitments are in place to enable discussions. “What lies behind all of this is our ability to tackle taboos. You have to make it possible to discuss difficult things in order to create an environment where you can be open and get support.
“Whether that’s racism, bullying or menopause, it’s about getting your place of work to be an environment where things previously considered controversial can be discussed. We know, as a broadcaster, that when you take the lid off a boiling pot there’s going to be a discussion.“
After a turbulent year around the world, Channel 4 has weathered the storm with some triumphs under its belt. While the pandemic may have pressed pause on certain recruitment endeavors (“people don’t leave in a pandemic, so it becomes harder to recruit new people”) it has also accelerated Channel 4’s commitment to becoming a broadcaster that represents the breadth and diversity of culture in the UK.
From late April until early May, The Drum is taking a deep dive into what’s in store for the small screen as we launch our Future of TV hub.
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