Channel 4’s controversial decision to ‘empty chair’ Boris Johnson with a melting ice block during a general election leaders’ debate staged by Channel 4 News has been defended by the broadcaster’s director of programmes, Ian Katz.
Katz, a former Newsnight editor and deputy editor of the Guardian, said that as a journalist he’d spent many years attempting to get climate change “into the heart of the political and the media agenda and mostly failing.”
But overnight Channel 4’s debate ensured that the subject came under the spotlight during the election. “I’m very proud of that,” he said. “It was an extraordinary achievement.”
Katz, speaking at an RTS Early Evening Event, described Channel 4 News as “probably the highest quality news programme in the world.”
He added: “Ofcom has consistently given Channel 4 News a clean bill of health in terms of its impartiality. I concentrate on the news we make, and I think it’s first rate.
“One of the most heartening things for me last year was that our news audiences were up substantially both in volume and in share and across all demographics. I think that speaks for itself.”
In a wide-ranging interview conducted by media journalist and commentator Kate Bulkley, Katz looked back at Channel 4’s performance in 2019 and previewed some of the shows audiences can look forward to in 2020.
He said that 2019 had been a year of “two halves,” with a tough first half followed by a a brilliant second period.
“We finished the year in a very strong place,” said Katz, pointing out that Channel 4’s audience share was “level across the demographics.”
“In peak we were the only commercial broadcaster that was up,” he claimed. “Crucially for us we were significantly up on BAME audiences, which was a big objective.”
Having been appointed at the end of 2017 Katz said his aim at Channel 4 was to “make waves.” In 2019 he had succeeded in creating “a lot of waves.”
Among the shows that had made an impact were James Graham’s Brexit: The Uncivil War starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, which Katz had green lit, Leaving Neverland, Jade Goody – The Reality Star Who Changed Britain, and Derry Girls.
“The Brexit drama was my first commission,” he said. “It was a script that had been developed… I can’t take credit for the timing.”
He said he felt there was “a drumbeat of noise” around Channel 4 during 2019.
The broadcaster makes far less drama than most of its rivals but Katz said that in this key genre Channel 4 had punched above its weight, not only with the Brexit drama but also with Shane Meadows’ The Virtues and the second series of The End of The F****ing World.
Comedy had also had a stellar year thanks to returning series like Catastrophe and Derry Girls, and newer shows like Stath Lets Flats.
Turning to the vexed subject of competing with the infinitely richer streamers, Katz said the fact that Channel 4 was able to back investigative documentary was a key differentiator between Netflix and Channel 4.
“Investigation in general is one of the functions that PSBs fulfil,” he said. “By and large you don’t get that from the SVoD world.
“They’re incredibly expensive and often very difficult to make. Often they take years of patient work.”
He cited the way that Leaving Neverland – scheduled in two-hour chunks across consecutive evenings - had punched through not only in the UK but across the world.
The show was one of Channel 4’s most watched shows in 2019 and was popular with young people streaming it on All 4.
“That film reminded me of the power of genuine revelation when you bring something fundamentally new to a story that changes people’s conception of that story,” Katz said.
“There’s a massive appetite out there for strong, revelatory factual programming.”
He said that in such a competitive environment Channel 4 had to be “the best partner to work with, whether it’s the terms of the deal, the ability to lavish TLC on a project or being transparent and quick to deal with.”
Katz has high hopes for a new 90-minute documentary looking at the death of Stuart Lubbock found dead at a party held by Michael Barrymore.
“These are relatable stories that we all remember,” he said. “This film lays bare a really profound institutional failure to deliver justice.
“It’s jaw dropping that after 20 years no one has been brought to account for this death.
“It also tells the extraordinary story of what a catastrophe like this does to a family…But what takes it to another level and makes it quintessential Channel 4 is its extraordinary window on the way the media, celebrity and the public intersect.”
In Conversation with Ian Katz was held at London’s h Club in Covent Garden on January 21st. The producer was Martin Stott. A full report will be published in the February edition of Television magazine.
All photography by Paul Hampartsoumian