Channel 4 Director of Programmes Ian Katz kicked off his first week at the British public broadcaster with mischief in his eye and an inbox of A-list invites as independent producers try to curry favor with the former BBC executive and land one of his first multi-million pound commissions.
He has told staff that he wants to “challenge the orthodoxy”, “mess with the mechanisms” of broadcasting and bring a “bit more provocation” to the schedule.
However, Katz, who started on Monday 8 January, was, a surprise choice to replace Jay Hunt, who left the broadcaster to join Apple as its European creative director for video. Katz, who as former deputy editor of the Guardian newspaper and editor of the BBC’s nightly news programme Newsnight, has never developed, produced or commissioned a television show. However, in both of his former roles, he was widely considered to have shaken up slightly dusty institutions.
This is exactly his challenge at Channel 4, a broadcaster that was created in 1982 in order to provide an alternative but that has been accused of leaning towards the middle of the road in recent years.
He has been tasked by Chief Executive Alex Mahon, herself only a few months into the job, with bringing in a slew of “big new shows” and “creatively innovating” its schedule. He will be required to encourage viewers to remember the channel that has taken huge risks over its 25-year history with shows such as late-night gonzo entertainment show The Word and Chris Morris’ edgy comedy Brass Eye.
In fact, Katz has told staff that he wants modern iterations of both of these shows as well as Graham Linehan’s cult workplace comedy The IT Crowd, which is in the process of being adapted by NBC in the U.S.
One possibility is a late-night entertainment series that it has been developing with Ronan Farrow, the New Yorker journalist who exposed Harvey Weinstein, and The Daily Show co-creator Madeleine Smithberg. The 30-minute show, which had a working title of Cocks News, is being shepherded by head of entertainment Ed Havard and offers a satirical take on the UK as seen through the eyes of America.
He will also be looking to the U.S. over the coming months as C4 increases its focus on high-end scripted series, often produced in association with U.S broadcasters and streaming services. He will need to decide whether it also continues to directly commission the U.S. studios on future projects, as it did with Sony on Philip K. Dick sci-fi adaptation Electric Dreams.
Elsewhere, he flagged C4 hits such as Gogglebox, which was turned into The People’s Couch for U.S. cable network Bravo, Hunted, which was adapted for CBS and The End Of The Fxxxing World, which was co-produced with Netflix.
Katz is also being handed more money to play with than his predecessors. C4 spent £501M (US$670M) on original content last year and Mahon recently said that it is going to put a “bit more money into the schedule” thanks to a slightly better than expected ad market.
This is music to the ears of British indies, who have been worried about commissioning budgets being slashed. Katz has already been in touch with many producers and is expected to offer more specific details of his shopping list over the coming weeks.
“I’m determined to ensure that Channel 4 is the most appealing creative partner for producers with the most exciting and challenging ideas,” he said. “My emphasis will be on ensuring that we use the unique creative freedom Channel 4 enjoys to the full. There is a wonderful line from Anthony Smith, one of the first producers to make the case for a fourth channel in the 1970s. British broadcasting, he argued, needed an imp in the mechanism’. Quite a bit has changed since then but I can’t think of a better job description.”
One of the main challenges for many producers will be how to appeal to Katz’ mischievous sprite. Most program makers don’t know Katz personally and he owes few favours to friends in the business. A number have spent the last few weeks and months since his appointment trying to rectify this.
Rumours that he spent some of the Christmas break on the 17 metre yacht owned by Stephen Lambert, Chief Executive of Gogglebox producer Studio Lambert and creator of Undercover Boss and Wife Swap, are unfounded. This is despite the fact that Lambert has high hopes for his latest creation, a youth-skewing social media-infused reality series that is currently on C4’s programming docket.
There have, however, been other attempts by producers to ingratiate themselves with the South African-born, North Londoner. Another rumour doing the rounds at C4’s Horseferry Road headquarters, is that one TV producer used her children as a way to meet Katz. It’s believed that the producer offered her son £50 ($70) if he could persuade Katz junior to attend a sleepover at his house (where Katz senior would be required to pick up said child). The plan apparently worked a treat until the producer’s son proudly told the Katz’ that he was now in the money following the successful completion of his task.
This will be unlikely to the be the last outlandish attempt to get closer to Katz as he sets out to kickstart the next chapter for Channel 4.