Andy Duncan: Next on Channel 4
In his last interview before leaving the helm of Channel 4, Andy Duncan talks about the future of TV in the digital age and the broadcaster’s metamorphosis.
Andy Duncan leaves his role as chief executive of Channel 4 in December, after five and a half years in the position.
When Andy Duncan became Channel 4’s fifth chief executive in July 2004, the business primarily revolved around one channel and one platform.
Five and half years later, as Duncan prepares to leave his post, Channel 4 has four digital channels, each with a time-shifted slot, its video-on-demand offering – 4oD, a multi-faceted website and is about to launch a fully fledged catch-up service on YouTube.
BBC should stop buying expensive US shows like Mad Men and The WireWhile these developments are not unique to Channel 4, with the BBC, ITV and Five having all created their own digital offerings, Duncan proudly points out that with many of the initiatives Channel 4 were first off the mark.
“Channel 4 were the first broadcaster to launch a +1 channel, an HD channel, its own VOD offer – 4oD – nearly a year before the BBC launched the iPlayer, making it the first broadcaster in the world to offer its full schedule on-demand via TV and PC,” he says.
Duncan, despite a recent spate of negative press questioning some of his decisions, has always been seen as a digital champion. During his three years on the board of the BBC as the director of Marketing, Communications and Audiences he was the first chair and a key architect of Freeview.
A casual dresser - he favours a polo shirt to a dress shirt - Duncan looks more like the boss of Silicon Valley tech company, rather than a chief exec of TV company. His image - a stark contrast traditional TV execs, such as Michael Grade - was a good fit with Channel 4, which remains a rebellious, youthful brand, even at 27 years old.
Duncan exits Horseferry Road in December and leaves behind a 4oD that will make a “modest” profit for the first time since it launched in 2006.
Considering this is where Duncan believes the future is it’s another milestone. “We have to follow where our viewers are. It’s the big shift in media and we are going from a producer-led and broadcaster-scheduled world to a viewer-led and on-demand situation,” he explains.
“Broadcasters had to figure out how to replicate their brands on the digital TV platforms – which we did with Film4, 4Music, More 4 and E4 – and now they must do the same online.”
Channel 4 recently became the first UK broadcaster to sign over all of its catch-up content to a major third party. As the Telegraph revealed three weeks ago, Channel 4 shows will soon be available on YouTube, as part of a non-exclusive partnership with the Google-owned video giant. However, it remains to be seen whether this aggregation model is truly a watershed moment for UK TV or the first step toward brand dilution and the depletion of revenue.
Duncan is not worried about the ramifications. “This deal was signed off at the highest levels, with Eric Schmidt [Google’s CEO] and Sergey [Brin – Google’s co-founder] heavily involved. It’s big for us both creatively and commercially. However, it is key to remember this is not an exclusive arrangement and Channel 4 will have several more partnerships in this area to announce in the coming weeks,” he says.
Duncan acknowledges that the old four-channel world was a “much easier and more lucrative space” to operate in and the online world is a threat to traditional TV players. However, he isn’t about to reminisce, saying: “The new world is here and broadcasters have to tackle it straight on”.
Duncan says: “I divide our digital strategy into five parts: the channels’ digital development, our 4oD offering, our HD offering – which will hopefully be offered online in the near future, cross platform extensions of programmes and 4IP – our £50m innovation fund – which identifies exciting digital innovations with a public purpose to support and develop.”
However, there have been glitches in the digital strategy too, notably the multi-million investment in launching 4Digital in 2008 - a second national DAB radio multiplex and three Channel 4 digital radio stations. It was canned before it even got off the ground due to broadcaster’s worsening financial situation. Early experiments with paid-for digital content, both online and with pay-TV channel Film 4 also flopped.
Commendably, Channel 4 did recover and learn from these digital mishaps – and the company’s share of UK TV viewing has grown under Duncan’s leadership from 10pc to 12pc – with 4pc of that accounted for by digital viewing. He estimates that the company commands 20 pc of long-form viewing via VOD.
His successor has not been named and he does not have another job to go to but Duncan is confident that the future of TV is rosy. While pundits posit a future of 3D TV and mood-based programme selection, Duncan points out that what technology is capable of and what consumers actually want to do are two very separate things.
He thinks people will continue to watch an average of 25 hours of TV a week, but it will be through a mixture of broadband-enabled TVs and PCs. Interestingly, he says the more “tecchy people” who use VOD service regularly, watch even more TV than the average person – so the myth of online killing TV really could be a myth.