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David Abraham leaves lasting legacy

Chief exec has made C4 a stronger, more modern broadcaster

It has been clear for some time that the wheels were about to turn at Channel 4.

In that sense, David Abraham’s departure is no surprise: seven years is a long stretch as its chief executive.

The timing is slightly awkward. I suspect he may have left sooner, had there been more certainty from the government about its plans for C4. He would have moved on whatever the outcome - either as the man who saved the broadcaster from privatisation, or who refused to run it in a new, commercial era.

Life is seldom that neat.

Abraham leaves having all but staved off the prospect of a US media giant (or anyone else) buying C4 outright, but without absolute clarity around its future. That should come in the next few months, while he remains in situ, and will almost certainly result in the broadcaster’s not-for-profit status and programming remit remaining intact.

If those two pillars remain the same, much has changed since Abraham took over. C4 is no longer pleading poverty or demanding a portion of BBCW to stay afloat. Instead, it has led the way among free-to-air broadcasters on data capture and VoD, using both to reinvigorate ad sales, and struck a lucrative deal to sell airtime for Abraham’s alma mater, UKTV.

The Growth Fund raised eyebrows at first, but has progressed without hiccups, and the sale of True North to Sky seems to prove its rationale. And there has been a programming renaissance, albeit with ups and downs along the way.

Abraham’s relationship with chief creative officer Jay Hunt has been tight. He stood by her when there was producer unrest about micro-management, before she had her slate nailed down and when the channel was searching for identity.

Hunt repaid that patience in spades, supercharging factual and fact ent in particular, with drama and comedy falling into place later. C4’s slate of returning series is strong and gives it an enviable distinctiveness.

It is slightly ironic that Abraham’s tenure ends, just as it began, with one big, controversial show dominating the conversation. Big Brother had become an albatross for C4 and the battle to replace it was slow and sometimes painful, but ultimately successful.

Snaring The Great British Bake Off could prove a canny commercial play in the long term, but there will be a tough period later this year when the headlines are about the show (inevitably) haemorrhaging viewers.

In any case, David Abraham’s achievement has really been to modernise C4.

Like his counterpart at ITV, Adam Crozier, he has ensured that the notion of a free-to-air, public service broadcaster remains relevant and culturally significant during an era of Snapchat and Netflix. Continuing that process will be the challenge for his successor.

Chris Curtis is editor of Broadcast

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