Channel 4’s Ian Katz: How The Most Talked-About Man In British TV Plans To Silence His Doubters

Ian Katz
Channel 4

At the BBC’s Christmas drinks earlier this month, I gatecrashed an animated conversation between two senior figures from the UK production sector. After a sheepish glance at each other, they revealed that the subject of their discussion was a certain Ian Katz, the director of programs at Channel 4. They are far from alone. Sit down with producers, commissioners, or current and former Channel 4 employees and you can play a game I call the Katz countdown: how long does it take before his name is mentioned?

There are two reasons for this phenomenon. The first, and more routine reason, is a matter of history. Channel 4 was the clever creation of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1982. It was established with a remit to take unparalleled creative risks and foster growth in the UK production sector by only commissioning independent producers. This means Channel 4 has a unique place in the hearts and minds of British indies, who feel a certain degree of ownership over the broadcaster. It is, for many, the best chance of winning business and subsequently, its commissioning standards are always heavily scrutinized, whoever is in the top job.

The second reason concerns Katz himself. His appointment more than two years ago lit up the British TV industry like a thunderbolt, in that his arrival was bone-janglingly surprising. A statement hire by Channel 4’s new CEO Alex Mahon, Katz was a news man by background, having spent more than two decades at The Guardian before editing BBC Two’s flagship current affairs show Newsnight. It meant he walked into Channel 4’s Horseferry Road headquarters with precisely zero experience of running a television channel.

In public, Mahon was heralding Katz as an “inspirational leader” with “fantastic instincts and intelligence.” Behind closed doors, she had to defend her decision to a room full of angry Channel 4 commissioners who could not fathom how he had landed the job. “She was told that it was a loony decision,” said one onlooker at the meeting. Jaws were also on the floor in the production community, with one superindie boss telling Deadline at the time that it was a “ridiculous” hire.

Reflecting on that early response to his appointment, Katz brushed off the criticism. “I had a very unusual background, there was going to be a lot of chatter about me,” he told me. And as some people pointed out, he can’t be blamed for walking into the Channel 4 job without the necessary experience. Mahon and the Channel 4 board were well aware of his credentials. “He didn’t come in pretending to have even liked or watched television very much,” a former colleague said.

Katz’s predecessor Jay Hunt, now Apple’s TV boss in Europe, was also divisive but she was at least a known quantity, steeped in TV experience having run BBC One, universally regarded as one of the toughest jobs in the business. Katz, by comparison, was a stranger, his tastes and talents a complete mystery to Channel 4’s near-300 suppliers. It’s why he went from being a peripheral figure to the most talked-about man in British TV overnight.

Two years later, many still consider Katz to be something of an outsider, but he has forged his own path at Channel 4, hiring an experienced team, studding the schedule with noisy shows like Brexit: The Uncivil War and growing the channel’s audience in 2019 as he searches for a tenure-defining hit.

Channel 4
What will be Channel 4’s new home in Leeds Channel 4

Back to those gossiping producers at the BBC party. They are two of nearly 20 people I spoke to for this story, which aims to piece together the major talking points of Katz’s first two years in office. Those who have contributed include some of Channel 4’s biggest suppliers, current and former employees, and credible industry observers. Katz himself also sat down with me in his London office, where he was in a bullish mood as he set out a confident case for why Channel 4 is in good health and good hands.

Many of my conversations about Katz’s early days could be summed up with this quote from one producer: “Ian’s a nice, impressive man, who is clearly a very good journalist, but he knows little about the business of television.” As I teased out more specifics, there were questions about Katz’s approach to talent, unorthodox scheduling and his understanding of how to turn ideas into workable TV formats.

Those who have worked with him described his lack of scheduling strategy, saying he has committed to breathing new life into certain slots and then abandoned his plans, and has floated unusual ideas such as airing comedies followed by one-hour news debates. “The heart of C4 is always the relationship between scheduling and sales. These two organs of the business are in serious panic because they don’t see the strategy,” one source said. And in an industry where relationships with on-screen talent are essential, more than one person said Katz can have a journalistic indifference towards some TV stars, asking brusque questions where celebrities are more used to being flattered and feted by commissioners. Katz would go on to tell me how Channel 4’s audience growth is outstripping other broadcasters and that he has poached stars, including the BBC’s Steph McGovern, underlining his ability to play the talent game.

Others have questioned Katz’s grasp of TV formats and his understanding of how to turn ideas into shows. A story doing the rounds in entertainment circles is said to illustrate this, and it concerns Katz’s initial response to Channel 4 entering the bidding for The Masked Singer, the hit Fox show which was eventually picked up by ITV in the UK. According to three people familiar with the meeting, when Katz was pitched The Masked Singer by his team, he said he was only interested if Channel 4 did it as a special with homeless buskers. It was pointed out to Katz that this defeats the object of the format in which judges and the audience must guess the identity of the masked celebrity performer. “I was often left speechless in meetings,” remarked one former colleague, who wished to remain anonymous. “He enjoys playing the naive maverick who questions how everything is done.” A Channel 4 spokesman said Katz had no recollection of The Masked Singer comment.

Katz was philosophical about industry gripes over his first two years. “There’s always a lot of noise around controller jobs, and particularly this one. And it’s entirely unsurprising given that I didn’t come from this world,” he said. In place of experience, Katz said he arrived with a “really clear idea of what I wanted to do with the channel,” which he described in his early days as being “an imp in the mechanism.” In other words, the naughty risk-taker that gets the nation talking. This was not a radical new direction for Channel 4, often looked upon as the innovative outsider, but Katz admitted that the mechanics of realizing his vision were not easy without an instruction manual on running a TV channel hardwired into his mind. “Understanding where the levers were and how to pull them took a while to get my head around,” he told me.

Katz said the biggest learning curve was transitioning from a fast-paced news environment, where fundamental editorial decisions were made on a daily basis, to a world of scattered deadlines and staggered impact. One minute, Katz will be discussing scheduling changes for two weeks’ time, the next he will planning for a live election debate later that evening, or making a call on a drama that could take two years to come to fruition. “The biggest challenge was coming out of an environment where planning a week or two ahead was sort of really distant,” he said. “When you get into a controller’s role, you’re operating on multiple time horizons.”

Brexit: The Uncivil War HBO

Katz said it took him a year to acclimatize to the job — for which he earned more than £500,000 ($660,000) in 2018 — and during that time there were “legitimate” questions about how his ideas were translating to the screen. But he said January 2019 offered big clues on what he wanted to achieve, with Brexit: The Uncivil War and Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland being standard-bearers for his vision. I pointed out that both shows predated his tenure — Hunt initially commissioned James Graham’s Uncivil War script, while Leaving Neverland was in the works for years. “The script was commissioned, but the show hadn’t been commissioned,” Katz fired back. “I inherited Leaving Neverland… but it was a big decision to run four hours of it.” Wryly, he added: “Believe me, you get blamed for the shows that you inherit that don’t work.”

Katz went back to Brexit: The Uncivil War a number of times during our conversation. It is the essence of what he is trying to achieve, he said. “That was a show that creatively, was unbelievably strong and utterly compelling, spoke to a broad audience, but absolutely played into a really live issue in a really thought-provoking way. It’s a show that people were arguing about for weeks before actually being on telly, months before being on telly,” he explained.

Katz also reeled off other shows that were conceived and delivered entirely under his leadership, including Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain — the three-part documentary on the dead Big Brother contestant Jade Goody — and border crossing series Smuggled. He is also proud of breathing fresh life into waning brands, such as parachuting in female contestants on SAS: Who Dares Wins or adding a £100,000 cash prize to The Island With Bear Grylls to make it Treasure Island With Bear Grylls. “By this summer, I really felt that it was the slate that I was trying to build coming through. And I feel like, since the summer, we’ve been cooking on gas,” he said. “On Channel 4 main channel, we’re in a really good, sustainable position.”

Katz produced cold hard numbers to support his case. Channel 4’s share of the UK viewing population has edged up 2% to 6.7% in primetime, the hours between 7PM and 11PM when advertisers drop most of their cash. In contrast, BBC One, ITV and Channel 5 are all suffering evening viewing declines this year. Only BBC Two is outperforming Channel 4, with its share of viewing up 5% in primetime. More young viewers have also watched Channel 4 this year — its share of 16-34 year olds grew 2% in primetime in the first 11 months of 2019.

Softly spoken throughout our encounter, Katz made his case with a quiet steeliness, often leaning forward into my microphone to emphasize a point. Those who know him will tell you that the Oxford University-educated executive is rarely short of confidence and boasts a fierce intellect. He has a loyal circle of senior commissioners, including his deputy Kelly Webb-Lamb and E4 boss Karl Warner, who he describes as “comrades” and occasionally toasts with Chablis Premier Cru from a mini-fridge in his London meeting room. But his composure and clear-headed appraisal of Channel 4’s performance this year has not always translated into confidence from everyone around him and the producers he relies on for ideas. Talk of Katz leaving, or being told to leave, has died down in recent months, but it hit fever pitch earlier this year when word spread that he was about to be ousted. Katz told me he personally fielded calls about his supposed imminent departure.

“There were clearly mischief-makers out there who were in the business of trying to destabilize me and, perhaps, destabilize the channel,” he said. “I was very amused about getting calls from former press colleagues asking about that.” Katz added that he had “not remotely” come close to calling it quits — a message he also delivered to his top commissioners around the time the rumor mill was in overdrive, telling them he’d have to be “dragged kicking and screaming” from the building, according to one observer.

Alex Mahon
Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon Channel 4

Four sources told me that Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon has not always helped the cause of her director of programs. Some have witnessed her rolling her eyes or joking at Katz’s expense during meetings, although one source put this down to casual banter. She even held one-to-one sit-downs with individual commissioners to grill them on Katz’s performance. One person contrasted Mahon and Katz’s relationship to the leadership of Hunt and former CEO David Abraham. “Jay and David were absolutely aligned and completely in synch and had a bottomed-out strategy, which was stuck to. It was just a totally different way of working,” the source said.

As acceptance has grown that Katz is not going anywhere, conversations have evolved from a focus on personality to performance. Where Katz points to revitalizing existing shows, some see an over-reliance on old brands like Gogglebox and its celebrity spin-off, George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces and First Dates. These are the shows that are doing the heavy lifting that has allowed Channel 4’s viewing share to increase, people familiar with the schedule said. “He’s milking and squeezing the life out of these shows,” one former Channel 4 commissioner argued. Another added: “Strip away the success of the returners and the culmination of stuff that had been in development for a long time, you are left with a rump of something that looks rather stark.”

Katz was unapologetic. “I’m incredibly lucky and grateful to have inherited a bunch of really strong shows that are the envy of any other broadcasters,” he said. “One of the things that I’ve been very committed to is really working on how to both nurture and stretch some of those big brands.” He also disputed the impression that Channel 4 is too reliant on these programs, highlighting three stats: Firstly, he said if you put The Great British Bake Off and Gogglebox to one side, half of Channel 4’s 30 highest-rated shows of the year were new titles. Secondly, Katz said Channel 4 has premiered more new shows than any rival except Channel 5, although he couldn’t resist noting that the Viacom-owned broadcaster “launched a lot of singles.” Finally, Katz said 50% of new launches in 2019 have outperformed slot average.

Crazy Delicious Netflix/C4

But where are the new long-running breadwinners at the heart of the schedule? Where are the tenure-defining hits that are going to shape Channel 4’s output for years to come?

In response, Katz said there are plans to double down on new launches in 2019. After highlighting programs including The Dog House, a dog rehoming show from Bristol-based Five Mile Films, and Voltage TV’s The British Tribe Next Door, he said: “Several of those shows will be back at significantly bigger volume next year.” Katz also has high hopes for new commissions Crazy Delicious, the Heston Blumenthal-hosted cooking competition Channel 4 is co-producing with Netflix; dating show Five Guys A Week, in which a woman lives with five prospective boyfriends; and The Surjury, a plastic surgery voting format that’s already stirring controversy. Asked if there are shows on other broadcasters he envies, it’s telling that Katz mentioned the BBC’s “terrific” Studio Lambert format Race Across The World, which performed well with young viewers and is returning in supersized fashion next year. He would be pleased if one of his new factual entertainment orders performed a similar job for Channel 4.

Over in scripted, he hinted that comedies including Stath Lets Flats, Year Of The Rabbit and This Way Up will return, while he is excited about the prospect of David Tennant drama Deadwater Fell, which premieres in January. Katz and his head of drama Caroline Hollick are refocusing on drama that “speaks very directly to British audiences” from “authored, diverse voices.” This means fewer “highly-glossy, international” projects like The First, the Sean Penn drama that bombed this year, but not necessarily fewer co-productions. The End Of The F***ing World is an authored British series and All 4’s most binged show ever, but it also does the business for Netflix. Katz said he remains keen to partner with U.S. streamers and broadcasters, even though he described them as “hardheaded” and often single-minded in their approach. “They seem to have blown a little hot and cold over the last couple of years about their level of appetite for co-production. But as things are at the moment, they seem to be very positive about it and keen to do it,” he added.

Curiously, Katz made no mention of The Circle returning for a third series until prompted. It’s become synonymous with his tenure after he doubled down on the Studio Lambert show for its second season. The Circle grew its audience by a third this year and Katz said it comfortably delivered a return on investment. “We haven’t made a recommission decision yet,” he said. Asked if that’s because Channel 4 is trying to drive down the cost, he replied: “In any negotiation about any show, you talk about the creative execution, you talk about the specking, you talk about the cost. And we’re having that kind of conversation.”

Taskmaster UKTV

Katz has also placed two big bets for next year and beyond. He has poached entertainment show Taskmaster from BBC Studios-owned broadcaster UKTV. He said it was something of an irony given the Avalon format, in which comedians take on a series of bizarre tasks, was originally developed for Channel 4. “It’s a show that lots of us here have long admired,” he said. “I feel like it’s a show that always should’ve been here and it’s great to put that right.”

The other big decision Katz has made for 2020 is launching a new daily live show, hosted by former BBC Breakfast presenter Steph McGovern, and broadcast from Channel 4’s new base in Leeds. After a fiercely contested tender process, Channel 4 awarded the contract to Expectation, the BBC Studios-backed production company run by former Endemol Shine president Tim Hincks and ex-ITV content chief Peter Fincham. Expectation is co-producing The Steph Show with Yorkshire’s Can Can Productions, but industry insiders have questioned the wisdom of involving the Notting Hill-based company in a program that symbolizes Channel 4’s move to Leeds.

“It’s a little curious that people obsess about the fact that one of the two companies involved is based in Notting Hill. This is a genuine co-production with one of the companies based in Yorkshire,” he said. “It’s a massive production to run a daily show, that needs a significant amount of infrastructure. We had three finalists and the Expectation/Can Can bid was a very clear winner.” Katz added that their pilot scored highest in audience research and McGovern is a “fantastic catch.”

Channel 4 Alternative Election
Channel 4’s Alternative Election Channel 4

Channel 4 also awarded Expectation its Alternative Election Night show, sidelining Zeppotron after it originally created the format in 2010. The show broadcast last Thursday to its lowest audience on record. The lack of a formal competitive process angered industry insiders and Katz was accused of having a cozy relationship with Hincks and Fincham. “It shows that commissioning buddyism is alive and well at Channel 4,” said one former commissioner, turned program maker.

Katz said this accusation is “not fair,” adding that Expectation isn’t among Channel 4’s 10 biggest suppliers this year. I pointed out that this could change in 2019 as a result of The Steph Show, but Katz said it is not a guarantee. “They’re a big company with a lot of very talented execs across a range of genres. It’s not surprising that, in a relatively short period of time, they would be competing in lots of different genres to make shows. And frankly, they’re making lots of shows for lots of broadcasters. But perhaps, they attract more attention and envy than others,” he added.

It is not unprecedented for Channel 4 to be accused of being tight with particular suppliers — there was a time when Objective Media Group seemed to hoover up commissions like a Dyson — but with Katz, it has provoked unhelpful disquiet about his strategy. He does not, however, see it translating into confusion or malaise in the quality of ideas he is getting through the door from a broad range of producers. “I would say [my strategy is] be noisy, be appealing to young viewers, and reach people where they are,” he said. “We’re getting lots of shows that do that job.”

One major Channel 4 producer, who did not want to be named, was particularly upbeat about Katz’s achievements. “There is always going to be bitchiness about rival producers and questions about channel controllers, but after a tricky start to life at Channel 4, he has really found his feet and you’re starting to see his personality on screen. Next year will be really telling for Ian,” the indie boss said.

The chatter around Katz is unlikely to vanish in the near future, but there is a growing consensus that 2020 will be a defining 12 months for the director of programs. If he can usher in a new era of noisy, popular shows while keeping old hits healthy and maintaining Channel 4’s audience share, he will go a long way to silencing his doubters.

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