Legacies in jeopardy: Channel 4’s budget cuts blitzkrieg

Legacies in jeopardy: Channel 4’s budget cuts blitzkrieg
Deferring bonuses: Mahon, left, and Katz

Channel 4’s executives could have left as saviours after privatisation was called off. Recent blacklashes over pay and cuts now risk tarnishing their legacies.

“Ever got the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

These words, spoken by John Lydon (Johnny Rotten as was) at the Sex Pistols’ final concert in San Francisco in 1978, appear to reflect the feelings of many independent producers with the advent of swingeing programme cuts at Channel 4.

As you would expect, independent production companies (and periodicals such as The Media Leader) were the staunchest defenders of the broadcaster in the successful campaign against privatisation.

C4 CEO Alex Mahon ceded the fight to others, stating, “rather than launching its own anti-privatisation campaign from the get-go, Channel 4 allowed the industry to speak on its behalf before wading in with public responses.”

The news that commissioning is being slashed could easily be taken as both a betrayal of C4’s remit, and evidence that management may have been a tad disingenuous about the robustness of the broadcaster’s finances.

Bloodbath at Horseferry Road

Certainly, from 2022’s boasting about C4’s long term viability under the current model, to chief content officer Ian Katz’s recent reported admission in relation to cancelled-whilst-in-production Four Weddings that he “had been looking at the channel’s entire output, and they were sorry, but it had to happen because there was no money.”

This, in addition to the apparent scrapping of Naked Attraction (a silver lining there for those who favour a late supper whilst watching C4), cancellation of flop reality challenge Scared of the Dark, and a slashing of the episode order for popular topical comedy The Last Leg.

Over recent days, Rescue: Extreme Medics, Kirstie Allsopp’s Handmade Christmas, and the civilian version of SAS: Who Dares Wins have all been either cancelled, or ‘rested’.

The broadcaster says: “Channel 4 cares deeply about the Indie community and our wider supply chain of freelancers. They are the beating heart of our business. While we recognise the actions we are asking of some are causing some short-term pain, the plan we have in place underscores our ongoing commitment to our financial sustainability and our continued support of the UK’s independent production sector.”

All of which reminds of me of the now infamous words of a former Labour treasury minister, passing on duties at the exchequer after the 2010 election: “I’m afraid there’s no money.”

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C4’s cutbacks were compounded by the failure of some pricey high-profile commissions, primarily Traitors wannabe Rise & Fall, a £14m gamble, which failed to attract either audiences or critical praise.

Viewing figures have also been in the doldrums over the last few months, with C4 twice recording all-time daily shares less than that of drama repeats channel ITV3, according to Barb figures.

Indies, can you spare C4 a dime?

And late requests from the broadcaster for indies to finance productions have also soured some on C4, with one veteran commenting, “I’ve never known this in 25 years of working in TV.”

Trade association Pact’s CEO John McVay weighed in with some advice: “If Channel 4 wants to ease its cash flow problems, then that’s fine, just come out and talk about it sensibly. This last-minute kick-bollocks-scramble is not good for anyone, including them, their reputation, and their relationships.”

McVay also went on the record saying he warned C4 about potential cash flow problems earlier this year; others in the production community queried why the network didn’t instead dip into their £75m revolving credit facility instead of asking indies to pick up the slack. The presumption being that it was politically embarrassing for C4 to use the facility after boasting about the channel’s healthy fiscal underpinning during the privatisation debate.

That was before C4 altered the payment model on Wednesday in the light of producers’ cash flow concerns — the second climbdown in a fortnight for the network after the retention payments deferment.

The not-ready-for-primetime players

The news last week that the three top executives (Alex Mahon, Katz and COO Jonathan Allan ) have deferred their hefty retention payouts was used as a fig leaf by C4 to cover the cuts, sold as “a wider response to a very difficult ad-market in the second quarter, which is affecting all commercial broadcasters.”

Pull the other one, C4.

But most knew the trio only declined the cash bonanza due to outrage at their perceived insensitivity and the recollection they were not supposed to have them in the first place.

The damage has already been done to their already less-than-stellar reputations.

One must seriously wonder the quality of C4’s comms team if no-one pointed out the terrible optics to Mahon, Katz & Allan when the news of the planned payment became public knowledge.

Were they so clueless about the likely reaction? Or did they simply not care?

If Mahon and Katz had departed C4 when privatisation was first called off, they would have been fêted by many as saviours.

But, in deciding to stick around (for the now deferred retention bonuses?) the pair are likely to leave a tarnished legacy, with draconian commissioning cuts, expensive flops, and reputational damage from their seeming avarice giving the impression of a couple of chancers, both in the final analysis, “not ready for prime time”.

Maybe Nadine Dorries had a point…

Stephen Arnell began his career at the BBC, moving to ITV where he launched and managed digital channels. He continues to consult for streamers and broadcasters on editorial strategy. He currently writes for The Spectator, The Independent, and The Guardian on film, TV and cultural issues. He is also a writer/producer (including Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime for Sky Arts) and novelist.

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