Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon has praised the UK independent production sector for rescuing the broadcaster during lockdown.
Speaking at the RTS Digital Convention 2020, Mahon recalled that in the spring when Britain was hit by the first wave of coronavirus: “Indies came to the rescue of Channel 4 and said ‘We’ll be flexible, we’ll work out how to produce in lockdown.’
“They said, ‘We have to delay this programme or we can’t make it or we’ve found a cunning way to make this programme.’”
She added: “Indies did incredible things and produced things cheaply.”
The Great British Bake-Off, produced by Love Productions, was made in a bubble and recently returned to Channel 4 with a huge audience of almost eight million viewers.
In the spring, Channel 4 ran a number of high-profile lockdown shows including Grayson Perry’s Art Club, Jamie Oliver’s Keep Cooking and Carry On, and Kirsty Allsopp’s Keep Crafting and Carry On.
Channel 4 News won widespread acclaim for running extended programmes during lockdown.
“We made all these shows that were super responsive and because of that we did really well in audience numbers,” said Mahon.
During peak time viewing by the under-35s surged by up to 38%, according to the broadcaster’s CEO.
She said that Channel 4 was more in tune with what was happening in the UK than its rivals.
“As lockdown happened, we had a clear, strategic conversation about what the editorial response should be, led by Ian (director of programmes Ian Katz) and the commissioning team.
“It was clear to us that we should be saying something back to Britain about what was happening.
“It was the exact opposite of what the SVoDs would be doing. If you were watching Netflix, it’s Tiger King, which is not saying anything about [being] British or the pandemic.”
With advertising revenue falling by as much as 50% the CEO said the situation had been “pretty bad.”
She continued: “We are not a commercial broadcaster like ITV. They can cut their profits, take on more debt or to do a rights issue.
“We don’t have the BBC’s guaranteed income. For us it’s pretty much all advertising. In the worst months advertising dropped 50%. To have 50% of your revenue ripped away and not know how long it would last is really bad.
“On the other hand. Channel 4 is at its best when it’s up against it – in a crisis when you have to change really fast Channel 4 is actually amazing.”
Overnight almost 1,000 members of staff began working from home. “Unusually for us, we were prepared with the technology. We had a debt facility in place for a market shock. That helped. We had to make a plan to cut costs fast.”
With the advertising market now healthier, Mahon said that 2021’s programme budget would receive a “massive” hike following this year’s cut of £150 million to its £660 million budget.
Pressed by interviewer Tim Hincks, co-CEO of Expectation, on how much the increase would be, Mahon declined to give a figure.
“We don’t know the advertising market will do but the budget definitely goes up massively in 2021 compared with 2020.”
She added: “We’ve got to get tariffs back to normal rates. We can’t – neither can indies - survive with tariffs being low.
“Lockdown has definitely taught us some things about how we can make cheaper programmes and it's definitely taught us some things about how you can make faster decisions.
“But you can’t compete in a Netflix world or an Amazon Prime world on a Disney + world by just making everything cheaper.
“That’s not realistic because that’s not the quality that viewers demand.”
Alex Mahon, CEO of Channel 4, was in conversation with Tim Hincks, co-CEO of Expectation, at the RTS Digital Convention. The producers were Sue Roberston and Martin Stott. A full report will be published in the October issue of Television magazine.