Since I spoke here a year ago, quite a lot has happened to Channel 4. It certainly hasn’t been dull...
The positive is that throughout all the political tumult we have focussed on one simple question: why are we here?
A core part of our purpose is that Channel 4 has a unique duty to a unique audience. The audience I mean is young British people and our recent discussion with Government has confirmed the centrality of them to how we fulfil our public service
We focus on that purpose to reach young audiences on platforms they use, with shows they want, made by and featuring talent they trust.
At Channel 4 we do it by telling stories with honesty and brilliance, to a generation who have had video mainlined in all day long their entire lives.
Exactly how so much video affects them is one of the more complicated questions of our time. So we undertook detailed research to understand Gen Z and their relationships with our industry and the world.
I’m going to show you some of the data we have gathered, particularly about their desire for honest news and expert information.
First, if you want to understand how important the role video plays in young people’s lives is, start with the fact that half Gen Z’s waking hours are spent looking at a screen – and, typically more than one screen.
The UK’s 16-34-year-olds watch almost 7 hours of video each day, with close to two-thirds served up by purpose-built algorithms designed to hold their attention for as long as possible by automatically lining up what they will see next.
And, as you can see here, young people don’t come to us – as broadcasters – first. So we need to go where they are with our content.
In the US use of the newer brands peaks at different parts of the day. TikTok’s shortform videos are used much more in the morning. YouTube peaks during the school day. And Netflix follows a pattern that is much more like we see in TV.
And while we all check our phones a lot, it’s very clear that young people do so even more. The sad news is if you haven’t checked your phone at least four times during this particular session, you’re showing your age!
But there is a serious point here. To be in contact with this demo, you have to be present where they are. You can’t wait for them to join you.
Yet being constantly on the move and in touch with each other makes them a natural and voracious audience for news and information – not just absorbing it but socialising and contextualising it.
The stats back up young people’s healthy appetite for news and information. They like news specific to their generation’s interest, but they also care about the same world issues as us.
Clearly though they consume it on different platforms – they are twice as likely as older people to find their news through social.
They want news clearly informed by facts neutrally delivered, so they can develop their own point of view rather than be fed stories laced with prejudice, stereotypes, what they see as tired media agendas or clickbait. They hate being told what to think about a particular topic and they find relentlessly negative news a turn off.
Instead, they want to make up their own minds, seeking out accessible sources which provide context for the world and their own lives.
Underpinning this research, we have been thinking about our role in contributing to a society with a cohesive culture. To ensure that, we need to stay connected to our young – and they to us. And we need to see things from their perspective.
So, the question for us has been: how do you reach young people and bring them relatable topics, trusted information and checkable news?
For us at Channel 4, the answer is to create programming that informs and educates them about contemporary issues and promotes debate. We particularly focus on issues that are important to, and for, their demographic but that we know are difficult to bring kids to.
- First, we make shows that speak to their concerns and areas that are of disproportionate interest to them, that are about their preoccupations: like mental health, gender, sexuality, body image, climate and ethical consumption.
- Second, we reflect the lives of 16-24-year-olds back at them and without judgement with shows like Ackley Bridge, Big Boys, or the upcoming Queenie. Only by seeing themselves on screen will they see Channel 4 as a platform that understands their lives and speaks to them. It’s what earns us permission to engage them with topics they may not automatically be attracted to but are important for them to know about.
- And, we work hard to be on platforms young people use, with talent they love. With Channel 4.0, our youth-focused YouTube channel, we provide young audiences with a way into our brand by using the biggest stars on social through a wide variety of formats.
While this is television with public purpose, it’s not ‘eat your peas’ TV. We make shows they want to watch – like It’s a Sin or Consent – because they’re entertaining and frequently fun, whatever other merits they possess.
We challenge them, not pander to them, on issues such as gender identity and cancel culture with films such as Gender Wars, our upcoming exploration of the debate around identity, or Jimmy Carr Destroys Art, which explored the logical conclusion of cancel culture.
A specific example is our hugely successful new youth current affairs strand Untold which focuses on serious topics relevant to young people including Inside the Shein Machine, looking at the realities of life in China working for the fast fashion giant and Life After Love Island, showing what really happens when the cameras turn off. Untold aims to see the world from young people’s points of view instead of looking down at them, with stories told without judgement. With amazing access, facts not opinion, statistics, and peer presenters we are encouraging young people to see the perspectives of others and allow debate.
Thinking about content that gets to Gen Z also extends to pornography. We cannot ignore the reality that one in 10 of the UK’s young has seen porn by the time they are nine years old and 42% of young people say they believe girls enjoy physically aggressive sex (see footnote below) Public service media must address this and let young people see portrayals of healthy relationships, consent, and safe sex. Some think that the internet means PSB content isn’t needed in this area anymore – I say it’s quite the opposite.
I mentioned at the start two-thirds of the video day is served by algorithms, rather than chosen.
And of course, this will be the first generation where AI is a prominent, maybe dominant, feature of what they read and see.
Those algorithms may be innocent or malign, but of one thing we can be pretty sure: they are not written for the benefit of young British people and the challenges they face; they have no allegiance to truth or honesty.
Some might think this is all a bit ‘outside the remit’ of a television company.
But the truth is our industry has always – and, I believe, will always – have a power to influence and to help, pointing out where trends and technologies make life better and where they make it worse.
And if we have that power as public service broadcasters, then we also have a duty to do it.
On Sunday night I was at the TV BAFTAs all dressed up and eager to see whether we would win or lose. At the end of the night Channel 4 had won more awards than in the last 22 years with nine BAFTAs.
That was obviously awesome. But what was better was the content we got it for… shows that all matter, that all change views and that no one else would ever make. I Am Ruth, a drama about the hideous impact on teens of social media and online harms; brave and shocking coverage from Ukraine; a documentary about the Children of The Taliban; Derry Girls, a show that 25 years on from the Good Friday Agreement is both funny and relevant to the ongoing complexity of life in Northern Ireland; Friday Night Live, featuring a trans woman naked on air; How To Be A Person, reaching and teaching teenagers lessons in life in complex situations they will all face; and Joe Lycett raging against those who fail to deliver on LGBT rights protection.
And that… all of that… is why we are here and why even though it is complicated it’s worth being a public service broadcaster more than ever.
Evidence on pornography’s influence on harmful sexual behaviour among children, Children’s Commissioner, May 2023