Interview: David Abraham: CEO, Channel 4

Photo Courtesy: Guardian Media Group

By Ashley Coates. Published: 18/06/2013

“At the sharp end of the creative process is this fascination with what makes an original idea, whether it’s music, or the written word, or fashion, if that is your guiding light, then honing that skill and developing it is one of the most critical factors that really creates value.”

The son of two immigrants, his mother was from Belgium and his father was from Calcutta, David Abraham grew up in rural Lincolnshire and Essex and went on to study History at Magdalen College, Oxford. Amazingly, David’s application to study television at postgraduate level was turned down by Middlesex Polytechnic and he started a career in advertising after a friend suggested the industry might also provide him with the opportunity to be involved in creative work.

David co-founded the groundbreaking advertising agency, St. Luke’s, which continues to work with major clients today. He moved out of advertising in 2001, becoming General Manager for Discovery in Europe and later joined UKTV as its Chief Executive.

He is well known for having initiated the successful rebranding of the UKTV channels that saw the creation of the Dave, Alibi and Yesterday TV brands. David describes his career as having taken place in a series of roughly five to seven year periods, giving him time to learn and make a positive impact in each role. His advice is to stay in a role for long enough to have made a measurable achievement before moving onto the next challenge.

Channel 4’s distinctive ethos is in part due to the fact that, like the BBC, it is legally required to offer the public a strict balance of current affairs, factual and entertainment formats as well as investing in innovative homegrown content.

But unlike the BBC, it has to pay its own way. When he joined Channel 4 in 2010, the organisation was seen to be at a bit of a creative ebb, with Big Brother having dominated its schedule for years, to the point where it seemed to define the channel itself. David has led the rejuvenation of the channel post Big Brother, returning it to its core values, overseeing the development of new programmes and the growth of Channel 4’s on-demand service, 4oD.

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You began your career in advertising; did you always see that as a route to working within television?

To be honest, I had some pretty general aspirations of wanting to be in the creative business. I think that is partly because of my background, my father was an architect who worked in designing schools and homes in the public sector but most of my family were entrepreneurs or involved in business.

As I was growing up I probably was exposed to the balance between creativity and business in a very general sense. Then at university a lot of my friends were heading into very pure business and finance and I always wanted to find my way into the creative world, but I think I decided very early on that I wasn’t a performer, a writer or a director. Being a producer of those things interested me more.

I did actually apply straight out of university, after studying History, to do a postgraduate course in TV production at Middlesex. It was in the days when there were very few graduate-level jobs. The BBC had a few traineeships, but if you didn’t get one of those it was all a bit ad-hoc.

There was a small course in television production, funnily enough I didn’t get a place there but a friend of mine said, “ad agencies produce a lot of content and are partly in that world, why don’t you go and look at that?” Once I understood how that would work I realised it would fulfil that side of what I was looking for because it was to do with thinking about brands and often communicating through film, imagery and writing.

Many of the creative people in advertising are the sort of people who are also doing other things as well, sometimes on the side or maybe go on to do other things. I probably stayed in the business for longer than I thought I would but I always felt I was always going to go back to a purer creative environment rather than the commercial art of advertising.

Do you feel that you probably did a lot more on the creative side having been in advertising, rather than doing production which puts more of an emphasis on the logistical side of things?

Possibly, I mean, it’s difficult to imagine how things might have worked out differently. I was lucky that I always worked in very creative ad agencies like CDP and Chiat/Day. There are companies which are more commercially driven but I was always at the end of the market that was trying to innovate and do interesting things.

Advertising is really focussed on ideas and I learnt about the process of generating ideas, collaborating in teams, how you use consumer research to shape ideas but still keep them original. They are quite good at training people to be good managers as well, the big agencies were in my day, in the eighties, and so you came out with quite a few good business skills as well such as numeracy and the mechanics of marketing.

If you put those things together it was a good training ground. At the same time, when I left advertising in 2001 I went into a reasonably senior role at Discovery and had a very steep learning curve to understand the disciplines of broadcasting as opposed to just a minor or general understanding of how television works.

When you left advertising and moved to Discovery, what were your aims? Did the company have a specific idea of what they wanted you to do when they hired you?

I came to it in part because this was the stage when independent companies were being spawned and I came to look at it as a sector that was interesting and different. Just by chance I got approached to run Discovery in Europe and I took a decision that this would be a really exciting new point in my career.

I think what they were looking for was someone to grow their channels and get them to connect with audiences on a bigger platform, because obviously in the early days of multi-channel television, pre-digital, they were very niche channels that many people were not exposed to. But with the growth of multi-channel they knew they could reach more people so my background in advertising and marketing was very relevant.

We developed a digital portfolio of channels at Discovery and we grew the business and did quite a few interesting deals with our partners and I got to commission programmes that won some awards. All of that was a great four years’ experience for me and then I got asked by the American arm of Discovery to help them run their learning channel, TLC, over there which I did for nearly three years and that was a whole other experience, transposing everything into an American environment was very exciting.

The creative sector seems to be quite an unpredictable career path, you talked about your friends from university going into straight finance or business areas and you wouldn’t expect the kind of movement that you’ve had. I guess you wouldn’t have predicted how much you have moved into different areas?

I think I’ve worked in different settings but there’s been continuity from where I was at the beginning to where I am now. The consistency has been helping to manage creative teams in environments that are highly committed to innovation.

Chiat/Day the advertising agency I worked at prior to St. Luke’s was a very innovative American company and has been throughout the last thirty years, creating the Apple brand. I have always been drawn to that but, yes; things have worked on a sort of five to seven year cycle in terms of where I’ve done it. I think the balancing act in terms of managing your career in the media is to make sure you establish a body of work before you feel the need to move on to the next thing because the opposite of that is you don’t stay long enough to really make an impact.

Turning to your present role as CEO of Channel 4, what does that position involve, in a very broad sense?

Ultimately I have to set the vision of the organisation in terms of how it’s responding to the changes that are going on, so that we don’t become isolated and obviously with technology things are changing very rapidly at the moment and positioning us within that context is key.

I’ve got to set a culture and build a team that can deliver to the innovation agenda, particularly with regards to programmes we commission but also the way in which we deliver them to the audience from a production and technology point-of-view. I’m responsible for the revenue of the organisation.

Although we are publicly owned at Channel 4, we are independently funded through our advertising activities so I have a revenue line I am managing with 200 people in our advertising department and they are turning over £1 billion in revenue these days. So it has a core to it which is a conventional CEO job but I have this public remit which requires us to deliver more than that.

We aim to deliver programming which has public value, whether it’s News and Current Affairs, which other channels under-invest in, or whether it’s programming that is particularly giving opportunities to people who are at the beginning of their creative careers, in writing or performance or technicians. So we have within our remit, which we are held accountable to by Parliament and by Ofcom, a specific set of ambitions that we have to be accountable to.

Channel 4 is restricted to a set of public service requirements much in the way the BBC is with its Charter. I wanted to ask you about a specific part of the Communications Act which is the need for Channel 4 to “exhibit a distinctive character”, how do you think this manifests itself in practice?

It’s got to be innovative and risk-taking and you’ve got to try new things. You can only really demonstrate this through specific examples so if you were to take the Paralympic Games from last year, they hadn’t been broadcasted in that way or at that scale with that kind of impact so that is a very good recent example.

Then in specific areas like film, we are supporters of many different independent filmmakers over many decades that have gone on to do great things that are also part of our remit. The News and Current Affairs output, you’ve got a whole hour of in-depth news every day at seven, that’s an example of something which we probably wouldn’t do if we were a purely commercial broadcaster.

There are many quite famous and popular characters in British broadcasting that began their careers at Channel 4, whether it’s Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross or dramatists like Shane Meadows and Paul Abbott who have done their first work with us because of our appetite to back emerging talent.

We’re sometimes described as the R&D lab of British television and I quite like that description although of course the environment we are doing that in now is much more cramped than it was thirty years ago when we were set up. We don’t have a monopoly over innovation but it certainly demonstrates by our very existence that we are a balance to the BBC, who of course receive all their funding from the license fee and we provide direct competition to them which is probably a good thing given their scale.

You started at Channel 4 at a time when it seemed to be at a bit of a creative ebb, what were your priorities when you joined?

There were a number of things going on at that point, one of which was informed by a debate around our funding and whether we should try to get direct public funding of some kind. Our new chairman and I set out our stall so as to remain independent and not get public funding which meant we had to run the place as efficiently as we possibly could and create new partnerships and find new revenue.

In addition to that, Big Brother had been on the schedules for a decade and we probably got a bit over-reliant on it. It had created an image of our brand which was dominated by one programme so the push has been on making the schedule much more diverse and making a lot more programmes and working with more producers to make those programmes in order to re-diversify the schedule.

The observation sometimes comes from our commercial competitors that we should have a Coronation Street or an X Factor in order to compete with them but we hope we are trying to do something different here. I think we have over forty new shows on our schedule every year which is a far healthier place to be in my view.

On-demand sources for entertainment are proving increasingly popular, particularly for the under 30s, how do you think that attitudinal change is going to effect the funding model for Channel 4 over the next ten years?

It’s already beginning to affect us in as much as we have 4oD which is a rapidly growing platform to catch-up with Channel 4 content and we have now got YouView which is emerging as a new way in which Freeview and broadband can work together amongst the main public service broadcasters.

All of this is starting to generate new opportunities for engaging directly with audiences. We announced eighteen months ago that we are going to develop our own relationship platform so that we can have a closer dialogue with the viewers in a way that we have never been able to do before.

What’s been encouraging is that over seven million people as of this point in the year have registered with Channel 4 and for the first time they are able to receive messages from us and personalise their experience of 4oD. All of these things are creating data which, blended with the needs of advertisers, can create more value around the audiences.

You’ve worked across different areas of the creative industries throughout your career with a close eye on the commercial side as well as the production of content, what would be your advice to someone who is interested in a role within the creative industries?

I think the most important thing is to be passionate about ideas and finding new ways of saying what might already be familiar in order to get people to see things in new ways. If you are passionate about original ideas, it will stand you in very good stead in whatever environment you may find yourself in.

Obviously there are many, many jobs in the Media that are to do with the commercial side, the legal side, the technical side and these are all very important functions. It’s very interesting for example if you come from a legal background to do a legal role within a media organisation. So there are lots of specialist roles that form part of the whole but at the sharp end of the creative process is this fascination with what makes an original idea, whether it’s music, or the written word, or fashion, if that is your guiding light, then honing that skill and developing it is one of the most critical factors that really creates value.

I think that is the greatest ambition that people should really think about because if they want to work at a more operational level that’s great too but you would want to work to do that in a creative environment rather than just anywhere. We don’t produce a product mechanically; it is literally the ideas that come out of people’s heads that create value.

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