PROFILE: Programming power - Mark Thompson, Chief executive, Channel 4

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

Thompson.



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

commercial market."



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

documentaries."



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

year.



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

cause problems.



Thompson insists that programme budgets are only being cut by around 3%.

"It's still pretty healthy and enough to build an outstanding schedule,"

he says.



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

executive.



"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

space."



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

BBC.



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 ...



BIOGRAPHY

1979-present

Various positions at the BBC including: production trainee; editor, BBC

Nine o'clock News; controller, BBC2; and director of TV

March 2002

Chief executive, Channel 4



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