Broadcaster Profile: Channel 4′s Steve Hewlett talks factual strategy

In British broadcasting's recent round of executive musical chairs, one of the undoubted beneficiaries has been Steve Hewlett - the new controller of documentaries and features at Channel 4. Having made his mark within the bbc, most recently as editor of...
March 1, 1998

In British broadcasting’s recent round of executive musical chairs, one of the undoubted beneficiaries has been Steve Hewlett – the new controller of documentaries and features at Channel 4. Having made his mark within the bbc, most recently as editor of flagship current-affairs strand Panorama, Hewlett was one of the first targets for C4 chief executive Michael Jackson, following his own departure from the bbc last summer.

Jackson’s regard for Hewlett is evident in the broad remit handed to his former colleague. Hewlett’s factual-programming fiefdom includes anchors such as documentaries, history, science and leisure. In addition, he oversees religion, music & arts, features, talks, multicultural programming and the Independent Film & Video Unit’s radical output. Only news and current affairs are beyond his grasp. ‘The breadth of the role was one of the things that attracted me to the job,’ says Hewlett. ‘It is an opportunity to see if my programming instincts will stand the test across a wide range of programs.’

The decision to join C4 at a time when the bbc is so clearly undergoing a factual-programming renaissance is rooted in a variety of factors – not least of which are Hewlett’s fond memories of working at C4 during its launch phase. ‘It was exciting for me to be involved with the sort of public broadcaster that Channel 4 was set up to be. It represented a genuine flowering of talent.’

He stayed from 1982-87, working on current-affairs series Alternative Friday and Diverse Reports, before joining the bbc. During the next decade at the corporation, he devised concepts such as Children’s Hospital and Airport, as well as editing both Inside Story and Panorama. His greatest coup was the exclusive Panorama interview with the late Diana Spencer which topped the u.k. ratings.

During his years at the bbc, however, Hewlett witnessed a realignment within the u.k. factual-programming sector which he believes was led by C4. ‘They made the first big turn of the wheel,’ he says. ‘They upset the status quo both politically and in craft terms, and introduced the sort of quality control which had previously only existed in bbc. The channel was definitely leading the way with strands like Cutting Edge.’

Subsequently, in Hewlett’s opinion, the bbc has fought back. Now, he believes British factual programming is poised for ‘the next turn of the wheel which will set the pace for the coming five to ten years. Instinctively, I think it will emerge here. But I might be wrong, because the bbc is no slouch.’

For Hewlett, the appeal of C4 is its freedom to operate creatively. ‘There is something that inevitably constrains the bbc. The public and politicians feel that they own the bbc, which means that things which don’t bat an eyelid on Channel 4 seem controversial on bbc1. I don’t think that’s wrong. But creatively, I wonder if the bbc is really capable of making big changes.’

This institutional observation is reinforced by the weight of the bbc’s ongoing efficiency drive. ‘Cost-cutting never stopped me doing anything while I was there, but it was coming pretty close,’ says Hewlett. ‘That is depressing for editorial managers who are there because they want to make programs.’

Although he talks in terms of epoch-changing television, Hewlett claims that he has not come to C4 with the intention of rewriting the schedule. ‘There is genuinely no sense of me saying, ‘This is all crap. Do it my way.’ The organization has a fantastic base, but it is clearly time to take stock of how we put the channel and the audience together for the next five years.’

Hewlett has now met each of the commissioning editors who report to him, and is keen to stress that the overriding responsibility still lies in their hands. ‘My role only works if it is strategic. If I said I would do the commissioning, it would be about three weeks before the office was full of paper and no decisions were being made at all.’

To date, the process of review has focused on ‘defining directions for each of the commissioning areas so everyone knows what they are up to. Although it is daunting, people have found it to be a pretty positive process.’ For Hewlett, C4′s agenda is different than in the early days. ’15 years ago, you could make a tv channel out of things that no one else would do. Now the bbc is much too agile a competitor to leave whole areas of output for Channel 4 to colonize.’ Which, says Hewlett, ‘means we must be first, and be brave wherever possible. We have to examine orthodoxy, be mischievous and embrace new voices.’

He rejects the idea that this is antagonistic to C4′s commercial ambition – or that innovation is only suitable for the fringes of the schedule. ‘I think it is invidious to say we get all our radical stuff from ifv and the audiences from Cutting Edge. The two aims aren’t contradictory. We want the best audiences possible given the editorial mission of the strand or department.’

Under Hewlett, existing strands appear to be safe. Cutting Edge, Secret Lives, Witness and Equinox ‘are huge strengths right at the heart of Channel 4. Maybe they need to be reinvigorated in places, but in a crowded market, brands are critical.’ Another brand he defends is Undercover. ‘It is a great strand and, providing it is possible, we should do more. But the standards are exacting. Amassing evidence to justify the intrusion is very demanding and getting them on the air is a big job. There is a reasonably high failure rate.’

There are areas where Hewlett sees room for improvement. With the ‘honourable exceptions’ of shows like TV Dinners and The Real Holiday Show, he believes that C4 has struggled to compete with the bbc in leisure programming. Arts is a genre where ‘you will see efforts to make greater impact,’ says Hewlett. Religion and multicultural programming are areas where he believes that broadcasting in general is ‘slightly behind the experience of most people.’

If there has been a general concern about documentary-making in the u.k., it is that there has been a gradual victory of directorial style over journalistic content – a criticism which Hewlett acknowledges. ‘I see lots of young, fantastically proficient people with ideas. But I think there has been a move towards the commissioning of documentaries where entertainment supersedes the objectives of insight or information.’

He is keen to reinforce C4′s commitment to the authoritative documentary. ‘I don’t believe documentaries should be watched as a penance. But we have to consider the situation for productions which seek to deal with serious and important things which can’t be presented in an entertaining way.’

A key distinction between C4 and the bbc is the former’s complete reliance on the independent sector – a factor which appeals to Hewlett. ‘The independent sector offers ideas that are unconstrained by corporate issues. The number of companies capable of delivering at a very high level of quality has rocketed in the last few years.’

That said, the existence for many is hand to mouth. Not only are there acute political questions about whether indies should be able to wrest greater control of their rights from C4, but there is a question about how far C4 should seek to nurture development.

‘There is a danger in the strictly contract-for-program, program-transmitted, money-paid realtionship,’ he says. ‘It is incumbent on us to enable independents to do their best work, which might mean engaging in a more constructive dialogue with them at an earlier stage. Channel 4 has got to ensure that it looks carefully at the kind of encouragement we can give people.’

For the foreseeable future, he sees strong support for factual’s central role in the C4 schedule. ‘There is no free ride. But Michael Jackson has worked in factual programs and knows what they can do for him.’

He believes one source of extra funding is the coproduction environment which has become more favourable. ‘People are more grown up about it now. And I think the bbc’s partnership with Discovery opens up the field for us.’

Hewlett’s ability to fulfill the C4 remit will require more than just scheduling success. ‘The spirit of mischief and challenge to orthodoxy that ifv represents needs to infect the whole of the channel,’ he says.

‘If anything is under threat in documentary-making, which I am determined to make sure survives at Channel 4, it is the spirit of enquiry. It is important to embrace projects of real editorial ambition which connect with the way people are leading their lives.’.

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