Channel 4’s Alex Mahon

When Alex Mahon was appointed chief executive of Channel 4 in 2017, she brought years of experience managing talent in the media and technology sectors. She had been CEO of Foundry, a special-effects software developer. Before that, she was at the helm of the Shine Group with business partner Elisabeth Murdoch. Recognizing the challenges broadcasters face today, including increasing competition from streaming services and digital companies, Mahon is encouraging the Channel 4 programming teams to take risks, focus on innovative shows and invest more in the All 4 on-demand service. She is also establishing a new headquarters and creative hubs outside London, to better reflect the entire population of the U.K. in front of, and behind, the camera.

TV EUROPE: What is Channel 4’s mission in today’s media landscape and what does it offer that viewers can’t get anywhere else?
MAHON: Channel 4 is unique in the media landscape. We’re the youngest public-service broadcaster in the world, an editorially independent creative business that operates at scale and exists to take creative risks with high-quality trusted, innovative and popular content.

In an increasingly crowded landscape, we’re here to give viewers something that they won’t find elsewhere. To take more risks than others, to have a point of view on society and a place in society, to back new talent and new ideas and to represent all communities. At its best, Channel 4 can drive the national conversation.

TV EUROPE: What balance do you and your programming teams aim for between drama, entertainment and factual programming?
MAHON: We always want to have a blended mix of all genres, but of course with a clear and unique Channel 4 tone of voice and approach.

Increasingly we’re blending the genres themselves. When you look at some of our most successful formats recently, such as The Island with Bear Grylls, SAS: Who Dares Wins and Hunted, they’re blurring the boundaries between factual and popular entertainment in new and exciting ways to huge global success.

Scripted genres are, and will continue to be, an important part of our offer, too. We’ve made a new commitment to investing even more in comedy and drama. We’re continuing to look at how audiences want to watch, whether that’s across multiple platforms, in the way we released The End of the F***ing World on Channel 4 and All 4, or the phenomenal way the shorter-run four-part Kiri punched through earlier this year.

TV EUROPE: What types of shows should Channel 4 be commissioning?
MAHON: We should be looking at new, fresh, innovative and exciting ideas—raising the bar creatively and taking some big risks. That’s what we’re here for.

Take The Last Leg. Who else would have made a returnable, popular satirical entertainment show out of an idea for a late-night segment in coverage of the Paralympics? Who else would put a grime MC [rapper Big Narstie] in charge of a brand-new talk show, as we’ve done recently with The Big Narstie Show? Or give a YouTube critic his own review show on the main channel, as we’ve done with Elijah Quashie in Peng Life?

Our shows should also have something to say about the world. In scripted this autumn, with The Bisexual and Pure—written by the fantastic Desiree Akhavan and Kirstie Swain, respectively—we’re tackling big issues like sexuality and mental illness in provocative, irreverent and sometimes shocking ways.

TV EUROPE: What can linear channels do to remain relevant? How much innovation and risk-taking are required in programming?
MAHON: Risk-taking, experimentation and innovation are all intrinsic to Channel 4, but in a world where there are almost infinite choices for viewers, it’s even more important that we have a clear editorial proposition—and that people know they can come to Channel 4 for something they won’t find in the same blend elsewhere.

There’s something special about the immediacy of concurrent viewing that linear channels offer that just isn’t achievable behind a subscription VOD paywall.

We’re also able to offer a combination of human editorial curation of fresh ideas on broadcast TV alongside algorithmic recommendation on digital All 4, and they both feed each other. That combination is something that you don’t get on streaming services or social media, and that layer of creative expertise [needed] to curate an experience for our viewers is incredibly important as we seek to bring viewers new ideas.

TV EUROPE: What is the role of acquired programming in the Channel 4, E4 and More4 schedules?
MAHON: Channel 4 and E4 have always been about a blended mix of high-quality, U.K.-produced originations and the very best from the rest of the world. The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, has something powerful to say about the world. And this summer [we partnered] with Showtime to bring a talent we originally launched on Channel 4, Sacha Baron Cohen, back to the channel with his provocative and mischievous Who Is America?

TV EUROPE: How are you evolving the All 4 service?
MAHON: We’re investing a lot more in All 4 to build the scale of the offer for viewers and improve the experience for them when they’re using the service.

When we commission content now, we’re also looking carefully at how it’s going to be consumed across all our platforms and how we can experiment more with windowing and box sets, and even better reflect the different ways people are watching.

We’ve also been looking at innovative partnerships to build the scale of the service, and in the last couple of months, we announced a major new deal with VICE to bring more than 900 hours of programming, including 200 hours of new content, to All 4 in a new youth-focused branded hub.

TV EUROPE: Tell us about Channel 4’s plans for a new headquarters outside London.
MAHON: This is about representation and how Channel 4 can better reflect all the U.K. After the EU referendum, there was a clear sense of disenfranchisement across many areas of the U.K., outside of the southeast particularly, and it became clear to us that as a publicly owned broadcaster, we needed to think about how we respond to that.

At the heart of what we’ve committed to is a move to spend 50 percent of our production investment in the nations and regions [encompassing England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland], which is an extra £250 million over the next five years, and I hope this will be transformative in terms of the regional creative economy, but also in regional representation in front of, and behind, the camera.

The second part is about making sure we have the right infrastructure in place to support that increase in spending, so we’re establishing a new national headquarters and two new creative hubs across the U.K. They’ll contain both commissioners and staff from across many areas of our business. And [we’re] moving our programming, including co-anchoring Channel 4 News from the nations and regions [bureaux] and launching a new daily program there.

I’ve visited regions across the U.K. as part of the process over the last few months, and I’ve been phenomenally impressed with the caliber of talent outside London and the impact we could make. Despite being a relatively small organization, you see what a totemic cultural and creative value Channel 4 has and what huge impact we could create.

TV EUROPE: What is the advertising climate in the U.K.?
MAHON: The television ad market has been incredibly resilient despite the political uncertainty over the last two years. After a dip in late 2016 and early 2017, we’ve seen growth at the end of last year and in the first half of 2018. We’re optimistic about the rest of the year.

TV EUROPE: What prospects for growth do you see for the Channel 4 group in the next 12 to 24 months?
MAHON: In an era of digital competition and new distribution models, where consumers have an oversupply of content, I think our role and the role of U.K. public-service broadcasters is more important than ever.
We can deliver trusted, high-quality, independent and impartial news at scale—you only have to look at the impact that Channel 4 News had with its Cambridge Analytica investigation to see how valuable that can be and how that can cut through in an era of echo chambers, social media and fake news.

I think that sense of British democratic values is perhaps more important now than it has been at any time in Channel 4’s history.