When Channel 4 wheeled its new leader in front of the media pack
last week, he looked an unlikely chief executive for what is now a
high-profile British institution.
In contrast to the rather corporate C4 chairman Vanni Treves stiffly
perched next to him, Mark Thompson looked relaxed, sporting a smile and
a bright tie splattered with sea shells.He opened the conference by
saying he was "chuffed" to have been picked for the job.
Perhaps he is simply fatalistic. At 44, he has become the fourth chief
executive of the fourth terrestrial channel.
Meanwhile some in the marketing community were privately expressing
their concern about Thompson's lack of commercial experience. Many had
him down as a BBC 'lifer', having spent 20 years of his career at
Auntie, starting with current affairs journalism. How would he cope with
running a commercially-funded channel, beloved by advertisers for its
shrewd ability to deliver young, upmarket consumer audiences?
"Don't forget I'm a member of a team at Channel 4," responds
He admits that he has "less experience of the advertising side", but
counters that he was running very big projects at the BBC, which
included extensive experience of the cost side of television.
"I'm also a director of UKTV (BBC's digital venture with Flextech) and
have rather more experience of commercial deal-making than you might
think," he says.
David Elstein, former chief executive of Channel 5 and now a consultant,
points out that Thompson is the least-experienced of C4's chief
executives so far.
"Sensitivity to advertisers won't be his main impulse. He will think
'what makes a good programme?' rather than 'what will give us a bigger
share of a particular demographic?'" says Elstein."That said, his
background is not inimical to the needs of advertisers. It's difficult
to reach the top level of the BBC these days without understanding the
Some believe Thompson will bring in a more client-focused executive to
cement relationships with advertisers, in the mould of ITV's new
commercial and marketing director, Jim Hytner. What nobody doubts is
that Thompson will deliver powerful programming. He has revived BBC
audiences in the past 18 months.
"He is a programming junkie," says one senior marketer and a friend of
Thompson. "And he knows that if he gets the programming right, the rest
will follow. His talent spans both high culture and popular culture and
he is prepared to take some risks."
Thompson hints at the type of risks that he plans to undertake when he
arrives in March. "We can bring real originality to bear on programmes
that will be popular. Channel 4 had an autumn schedule to be proud of:
Testing God, the 17th century documentaries and Graham Norton, while Big
Brother was a fundamental creative breakthrough. But I'd like to see
some more big projects in the mould of Shackleton (the forthcoming
£10m series starring Kenneth Branagh) and David Starkey's history
As for the controversial Brass Eye satire on paedophilia, he says: "It's
a good example of what C4 is here to do."
In reality, programming won't be Thompson's biggest obstacle. He admits
that the "immediate problem is the current recession". C4's ad revenues
are likely to be down to around £600m this year, a 6% drop on last
Although this is mild in comparison to ITV's projected 14% fall in
advertising, and 11.5% in the TV market in general, it is starting to
Thompson insists that programme budgets are only being cut by around 3%.
"It's still pretty healthy and enough to build an outstanding schedule,"
But the financial pressure is exacerbated by the loss-making 4 Ventures
operation, which comprises FilmFour, E4 and internet interests.
Although his predecessor, Michael Jackson, was a fervent investor in
this area, some believe Thompson will be more cautious. "He will be less
prone to splurge outside the main channel," says a senior TV
"He will want better value out of the large revenue C4 generates."
Thompson himself sounds positive about the digital sphere. "I don't
think C4 has over-stretched itself. There are new ways of reaching
audiences and we're mapping out our core values through new media. We
need to embrace technologies and keep evolving and expanding the media
One senior C4 executive believes he will be very pro-digital. "Mark
pinned his colours to the digital expansion of the BBC. He was
instrumental in developing the digital strategy of BBC4. The difficulty
is making any money from it."
Thompson looks far from daunted by all these challenges. He now has a
couple of months off to mull it all over, something that he will no
doubt enjoy in his Oxford home with his family. He can also look forward
to a salary estimated to be around £500,000 - more than his
current boss Greg Dyke.
In the longer term, many are tipping Thompson as the next head of the
Add some commercial exposure to this Oxbridge-educated intellectual and
you have a pretty hot contender. There's just that small matter of the
mounting C4 overdraft to overcome. And the future of digital TV. Oh, and
the threat of privatisation ...
Various positions at the BBC including: production trainee; editor, BBC
Nine o'clock News; controller, BBC2; and director of TV
Chief executive, Channel 4