Channel 4’s director of programmes, Ian Katz, tells the RTS how he seeks to put clear blue water between the broadcaster and the SVoD giants.
Like every broadcaster, Channel 4 is feeling the heat from the streaming giants. But, at an RTS early-evening event, the network’s director of programmes stated that, despite their bigger budgets, he can offer producers the personal touch that Netflix et al lack.
Ian Katz said: “If you ask drama producers what is it like dealing with the streamers, they tend to say two things. On the plus side, you get quick answers and big budgets; on the negative side, they swallow up all your rights and you have a five-minute window.…
“We can’t compete on money and we have to be quicker.… What we can compete on is TLC and impact. You get our bespoke attention from development through to marketing. We desperately want a show to land.
“What I’m finding, particularly with writers, is that the appeal of these, weighed against the money and the other things the SVoD world can offer, is growing.”
Katz added that UK writers were showing their frustration with the streaming world: “There is a sense that you can toil away for years and drop something into the SVoD pond and it just disappears. It’s much better to work with a PSB.”
As evidence, he highlighted a new E4 comedy, Maxxx, written and starring actor OT Fagbenle, who appeared in The Handmaid’s Tale. “OT has never written a comedy before. It’s been a labour of love over two or three years. Those are the kind of soft things that we can deliver that those with more money than us are not that interested in.”
Judged by a clip from Maxxx that had the audience laughing noisily, the story about a former boy band star who becomes a drug-raddled, tabloid laughing stock, could take its place alongside other Channel 4 comic gems such as Catastrophe, Peep Show and Father Ted.
It’s been two years since Katz succeeded Jay Hunt at Channel 4. By all accounts, the experience has been something of a baptism of fire for the former Guardian deputy editor, whose only other job in TV was editing BBC Two’s current affairs flagship, Newsnight, between 2013 and 2017.
The last six months have seen things settle down for Katz at the network, as viewing figures have improved and critics and audiences alike have started to applaud elements of his schedule. There’s even been an Oscar nomination, for the Channel 4 Syrian war documentary For Sama.
He acknowledged that 2019 had been a year of “two halves” in terms of ratings. A tough beginning was followed by a much improved second half.
“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 for all demographics,” he claimed. “Crucially for us, we were significantly up on BAME audiences, which was a big objective.”
When he was 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” as he identified shows such as: the prescient James Graham drama Brexit: The Uncivil War (his first commission starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings); the second series of Derry Girls; and the Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland.
For a taste of 2020, Katz played a video showcasing Crazy Delicious, a food-based competition that includes an edible set; The Write Offs, a series about adult literacy presented by Sandi Toksvig; and a new documentary, Unexplained, which examines the still controversial death of Stuart Lubbock, who was found dead in the swimming pool at Michael Barrymore’s house.
“This film lays bare a really profound institutional failure to deliver justice,” said Katz. “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.”
Katz’s first two years at the broadcaster coincided with CEO Alex Mahon developing and opening new regional offices in Leeds, Bristol and Glasgow.
He told the RTS that setting stories in specific places outside London gave Channel 4 another “point of difference” between itself and the SVoDs.
The Accident devastated a fictional small Welsh town and Deadwater Fell centred on a Scottish village, while Derry Girls was set against the background of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
“Locating our stories strongly in specific places gives us a real point of difference and we will be looking for more of these programmes,” he added.
Not that Channel 4 was averse to co-producing with the SVoDs. Russell T Davies’s upcoming drama Boys has been made in tandem with HBO Max. This had given the show a “very high production budget”, noted Katz, who expected more such partnerships in a “variegated landscape”.
Deadwater Fell, produced by Kudos, had not been made for peanuts but its budget was closer to £2m per episode than the £5m-plus that might be spent by the SVoDs.
Turning to comedy, the director of programmes admitted that the genre struggled to match drama for ratings but argued that it often overperformed on All 4. “We have a fabulous tradition in comedy and there is a definitional quality about it,” said Katz, who injected £10m into comedy in 2018. “If you can get comedy right, it has an incredibly long life. Week in and out, our biggest shows on All 4 are comedies such as Friday Night Dinner and Derry Girls.”
He singled out Stath Lets Flats and This Way Up for praise and said he would continue to seek out significant content that would sit in the archive and generate views. “It is worth throwing out more fishing lines as every now and then you get a Derry Girls,” he declared.
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 was arguably one of the defining media moments of the recent election.
“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"
It provoked outrage in the Conservative Party and a complaint to Ofcom that the broadcaster had infringed due impartiality rules, which was rejected.
Katz said that, as a journalist he had 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 put the spotlight on the subject. “I’m very proud of that. It was an extraordinary achievement.”
He 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.”
Report by Steve Clarke. ‘In Conversation with Ian Katz’ was held at H Club London on 21 January. Ian Katz was interviewed by journalist and media commentator Kate Bulkley. The producer was