Katz made no bones about the potential changes to Channel 4 both on and off air: “It would be a very different beast to the Channel 4 we know now. Much that is so special and treasured would very likely be lost. Some people say that’s not true because you can just write licence requirements that would protect everything about the channel that we value, but that misses the fundamental change you get when you move from a channel that is purpose driven to one that is profit-driven….I think what is special about the channel would be destroyed.”
It is an intense time for Channel 4. As well as the imminent move of its headquarters to Leeds, the DCMS consultation into the privatization of the channel closes in three weeks’ time.
Katz didn’t hesitate to wade into the debate, saying he had been warmed by the depth of support from players at every level in the industry in noting its importance to the creative eco-system, but also in its content as defined by its current remit.
Katz pointed out the irony of the broadcaster’s recent successes, amid the ongoing debate about privatization.
It has certainly been a strong year, with the channel enjoying its best share performance in a decade with both linear and digital audiences, and streaming figures up by 26% in the last year. Katz highlighted Russell T Davies’ AIDS-era drama It’s A Sin receiving both critical acclaim and, as Katz reported, becoming Channel 4’s biggest ever streaming hit. And he also marked its success in reaching young audiences, airing 22 out of 25 biggest shows aimed at this 18-34 age gap.
As a result of this and other successes, Katz announced today that Channel 4 would be able to add a further £24million into its content budget for 2021/22, on top of the £60million previously announced in June).
“There’s a certain irony that we’re having a debate about the sustainability of Channel 4 at a moment that sees Channel 4 in probably the rudest commercial health it’s been in in a decade.
“This will take us up to the highest level in content spend in five years,” he explained, adding that the priority area for spending will be on younger audiences and teens.
“We’re launching this year a teen service on our social platforms. One of the things that’s been most gratifying this year is our social media team in Leeds now has greatest reach among 18-34 of any brand. That’s an area we’ve seen real traction and are going to put more money in.”
Despite this focus, Katz defended his decision to cancel The Circle earlier this year, a reality show for young people now finding new fans on Netflix in the US.
He said: “The Circle was a terrific show for us, but it was a big chunk of our schedule, and the channel is all about change. One has to keep looking and say, we’ve had a terrific run, let’s come up with something new.”
Following Jack Thorne’s searing indictment of the TV industry as one that is failing disabled people on and off the screen, Katz also said that Channel 4 will be among those who “resolve to do better”.
Katz reflected on Thorne’s MacTaggart Lecture: “The only human response is to feel collectively shamed.”
While he made the point that Channel 4 is no stranger to championing disabled voices and stories, highlighting its coverage of the Paralympics (which begins today, and will air three times as many hours as the BBC’s recent Olympic coverage, according to Katz) and the success of comedy show The Last Leg, he agreed that Thorne had identified a problem in the scripted sphere, and today, he announced that Channel 4 will commission at least one major drama in 2022 from a disabled writer, and we are thinking hard about how we can support Jack’s initiative in how we can improve access to sets.”
“There’s lots going on, lots of progress, but clearly still a long way to go.”
He also championed C4’s forthcoming drama, Help, penned by Thorne, set in an elderly people’s care home in Liverpool, in the early days of the pandemic. He called it “the most important, affecting drama that Channel 4 has ever transmitted”, adding: “These are the kind of shows that when people say, what is it Channel 4 does that is unique, these are the shows you wouldn’t have if Channel 4 weren’t here.”
Former Newsnight editor and Guardian Deputy Editor Katz was promoted to Chief Content Officer earlier this year as the ad-funded public service broadcaster unveiled a reorganisation of its top team as part of wider plans to future-proof Chanel 4 and lean in to digital, streaming and on-demand. Katz oversees all editorial decisions across linear, streaming, and social.