Jay Hunt: What Channel 4 Want

The channel’s Chief Creative Officer looks back at 2011’s highlights, what they’re currently looking for in comedy, drama and factual and her thoughts on pitching.

Event took place on 16 December 2011.

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Words by Matthew Bell

Channel 4 enjoyed a good 2011 with new shows such as Fresh Meat, Mummifying Alan and Top Boy earning critical plaudits, and Big Fat Gypsy Weddings huge audiences of more than 8 million. Nobody at the channel, including its Chief Creative Officer Jay Hunt, lamented the loss of Big Brother.

Hunt is responsible for Channel 4’s terrestrial (C4), digital (E4, More4 and Film4) and online content, a significantly wider role than her previous job as Controller of BBC1. “I love the BBC; I was incredibly happy there,” she said, but it is clear that she is revelling in the creative freedom of C4. “Do I adore being in an organisation where we say, ‘Let’s just bloody do it?’ Of course I do. It’s utterly liberating.”

“The default setting at C4 is to be brave. It’s a place that’s defined by risk-taking and innovation. If you can go to suppliers and say, ‘Have you got a show that the BBC wouldn’t be brave enough to make, then bring it to us’, that’s an extraordinary position to be in.”

Looking back over 2011, Hunt noted some highlights that define what a C4 programme should be. Charlie Brooker’s satire Black Mirror, which involved a prime minister being blackmailed into having sex with a pig, Hunt claimed, was “probably the most frightening thing I’ve ever commissioned. It could have been an utter disaster. We want more things in the mix that feel as frightening as this.”

“Downton Abbey's a brilliantly successful period drama but it doesn’t tell you much else about the world. It doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t do period but it would be period with a slightly different attitude.”

On the factual front, Hunt selected a couple of programmes best avoided by squeamish viewers. Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic, she recalled, “nearly caused me to be sick on myself. I don’t think any other broadcaster would have someone Skyping in some testicular pustules for live diagnosis.”

Mummifying Alan: Egypt’s Last Secret, in which a terminally ill taxi driver gave permission for his body to be mummified, was “a perfect example of walking that very narrow line between voyeuristic programming and an extraordinary sense of public service.”

Host Richard Bacon asked Hunt whether there was a programme she wished she had commissioned. “[Sky1’s] An idiot Abroad would have been good on C4. People become snooty about what innovation looks like. To have found a way of turning misanthropic travel into a show is a neat thing to have done,” Hunt replied. “People are always saying grand things like, ‘I wish I’d commissioned Downton Abbey’. Often with innovation it’s the smaller shows that are more telling.”

“Would it have been nice to have had Downton Abbey?” asked Bacon. “It would have been a really odd thing for C4 to [broadcast]. I can’t sit here and say to you that we’re the place that commissions things that no-one else will commission and then do something as utterly mainstream as Downton Abbey,” responded Hunt. “It’s a brilliantly successful period drama but it doesn’t tell you much else about the world. It doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t do period but it would be period with a slightly different attitude.”

“We’re a broad channel and we should have shows that appeal to broad audiences,” Hunt concluded. “But we never lose our desire to do things that are different and mischievous because that’s absolutely part of what the channel is.”

WHAT CHANNEL 4 WANT

Comedy
“[We] shouldn’t exclusively occupy that niche area where we have beautifully crafted boutique pieces that only a discrete audience will watch. So, something like Friday Night Dinner is an incredibly important piece for us because it’s heart-warming, quite mainstream comedy… But at the other end of the spectrum, Noel Fielding’s next show will be on E4 and is about as surreal as you can imagine. We are looking for a real range in comedy.

“I’m not looking for bad studio sitcom. There’s a very good reason why ITV have stopped doing comedy: it is, ghastly phrase, a market failure genre. It’s an incredibly hard thing to get right.”

Factual
“You’ll see lots of other people attempt to copy [Big Fat Gypsy Weddings] but the lesson is: don’t just think you can do the same thing again. Another micro-community is not necessarily the way forward. To a degree, you’ve got to be grateful for those victories and move on.

“We’ve talked a lot internally about what consumer journalism [should] look like on Channel 4. To me that’s a fantastic opportunity. You can have a witty and irreverent approach to issues that affect consumers. The success we had earlier in the year with Mary Portas: Secret Shopper gives a sense of the direction I’d be interested in going in. I’d be interested in having more pieces in that vein. We are [also] looking for the next evolution in beauty and fashion – I don’t think we’ve got that quite right yet.”

Drama
“There’s a place that C4 occupies uniquely, which is around drama that super-serves young audiences [10pm-scheduled dramas such as Top Boy, Fresh Meat and This Is England]. We are big time in the market for those. But, the area that is more interesting in some respects is what does a 9pm drama look like on C4? If you look at the range we’ve had over the last 12 months, from The Promise by Peter Kosminsky through to Any Human Heart and Black Mirror, the answer is it can take lots of different shapes.

I hope that we will have a very broad set of conversations with drama suppliers, both about new scripts and new writers, but also about adaptations and pieces that have got something important to say about the world.

A pitch
“I don’t expect anyone to walk into the building with a fully formed idea that we can go straight to commissioning, but I would encourage you to come with a germ of an idea that we can start shaping into something that might work.”