Realscreen Summit: Jay Hunt on the power of failure

Failure was the central theme of Channel 4′s chief creative officer Jay Hunt‘s keynote speech, which kicked off Wednesday’s (Jan. 25) slate of panels at the Realscreen Summit in Washington, ...
January 26, 2017

Failure was the central theme of Channel 4′s chief creative officer Jay Hunt‘s keynote speech, which kicked off Wednesday’s (Jan. 25) slate of panels at the Realscreen Summit in Washington, D.C.

Fear of greenlighting a show that flops. Fear of losing money, audience, brand strength.

But with the fear of failure so intense across networks, shows with promise are often dumped before they can prove their worth.

Hunt – whose leadership has helped her public broadcaster to win the coveted title of UK Channel of the Year not once, but twice – sees that as a perfectly good opportunity missed.

“The reason Channel 4 succeeded, is because it failed,” she said, succinctly summing up her overall message to delegates across the pond.

She highlighted some of the ‘flops’ that aired on C4 - The Last Leg, First Dates and Huntedall shows that didn’t rate on their first transmission and performed below slot average.

But, given enough time and marketing support to land an audience, the shows have all become big hits with audiences and a boon to the public broadcaster’s bottom line.

The shows that were once considered flops absorb only 3% of the scheduled air time, but deliver nearly 10% of viewing share, Hunt said.

“By persisting, we have grown them into hits for Channel 4 and global successes for the producers who made them.”

Following the U.S. pilot season, studios throw away IP worth millions of dollars. “Surely there has to be a better way,” she said of working with all this creative content.

Hunt said she knows it’s hard to back failure as a commercial broadcaster, noting, “It’s hard to explain why you’re recommissioning a flop.”

But data can help decision makers figure out if the show in question is a hit in the making and not just an expensive disaster. Audience attention figures and critical acclaim are useful tools that can be used to determine the viability of a program.

Hunt said it’s also important to understand audience choice. As viewers are given more choice, many shows only get traction in their second or third season as it takes viewers time to become comfortable with the new titles.

When that happens, she said, “It’s a very small leap from familiarity to liking.”

She has used this insight to transform C4, but she also recognizes not all flops can be turned around.

“Shows that are bad will always be bad. No amount of locking people in a dark room and making them watch it will change that.”

But she fundamentally believes that it’s important for networks to hold their nerve and champion the ideas they love.

“Believe me, I know how hard it can be. It’s the easiest thing to stand here and say, and the hardest thing to do,” she said.

But C4′s success in boosting audience and advertising is proof that the model works.

“By daring to be brave, by backing great producers who make good shows, that is exactly what we have done. We have commissioned big hits that deliver real value to them and us,” she said.

Sure, there is a comfort in staying low to the ground and commissioning only those shows with a proven track record in the local or international market, but, according to Hunt, “It’s precisely at the moment when you are most frightened you need to be the most brave.”

With this mindset, Hunt advised any producer coming to C4 to arm themselves with an ambitious idea that has something to say about the world, whether that’s on the gap between the rich and poor or the rise of nationalism among Western countries. Anything less, she said, “won’t get past Channel 4.”

Not that old ideas don’t have a place on C4. No discussion of the broadcaster is ever complete these days without mentioning its headline-grabbing deal last September to win Love Productions The Great British Bake Off away from the BBC.

The competition series was a consistent top hit for the Beeb for seven seasons, but came up for grabs after contract negotiations between the UK pubcaster and production company fell apart, reportedly over money.

“I make no apology for making a commercial play like that,” Hunt said of the move. She also confirmed a new season of the food-themed show is now slated to air this year.

Referencing an earlier discussion at the Realscreen Summit on the seemingly thorny relationships between networks and producers in the U.S., moderator Nick Catliff, managing director and co-founder of Lion Television, asked Hunt about the dynamic between Channel 4 and indie producers.

Hunt said it’s all about partnership.

“When they jump off a cliff with a Channel 4 commission, they have to feel that they are holding hands with someone on the commissioning side who is going to see them through. We can only ask people in our industry to take these risks if we are willing to back them, and I think we are,” she said.

The broadcaster has always operated across a subsidy model. Big draws like Big Brother and non-scripted and scripted shows help them afford to take risks with genres like scripted comedy and current affairs.

With game-changing digital platforms like Netflix entering the scene and stealing eyeballs, Hunt said she doesn’t see them as a threat, but as an opportunity to work together.

“The alternative way of looking at that, as a smaller broadcaster, is someone saying ‘I love your taste palate, can we be in on your shows?’ and I am able to have more scripted on Channel 4 than I have in a long time. That’s an upside and there might be opportunities for unscripted as well.”

Netflix and C4 currently have three co-pros together. Hunt said the streaming platform has constantly punched above its weight in innovation and in coming up with new shows.

(Photo by Rahoul Ghose)

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