Introducing Channel 4’s new Chairman

Alumna Yasmin Khan interviews alumnus Charles Gurassa as he steps up to head Channel 4

Newly appointed Chairman of Channel 4, Charles Gurassa is no stranger to success. The York alumnus has spearheaded pivotal strategic change for organisations as diverse as Thomson Travel, Virgin Mobile and Lovefilm – apparently with the Midas touch.

His career has demonstrated an appetite for change and an ability to ride the digital waves that have disrupted the broadcasting industry in recent years. It’s little wonder then that he was recently approached to succeed Lord Burns in the quest to expand and evolve Channel 4’s offering and platforms, against a backdrop of austerity and dizzying technological change.

Gurassa’s passion for ‘All 4’ (the online digital portal for live, catch up and exclusive 4 content) is evident. “Ultimately people will come to [Channel 4] if we produce great content,” he says. “Film 4 won three Oscars at the last ceremony,” he tells me. “And there was a subsequent article in the LA Times which identified Film 4 as the secret powerhouse in the film industry.”

Since its birth via a 1982 Act of Parliament, Channel 4 has been mandated to give a voice to minority interests, to be innovative and thought provoking and to support the UK’s independent creative sector.

The mandate, says Gurassa, requires the Channel to provide “a platform for diverse voices, minority interests, to support education, drama, to ensure that there is news coverage that is sufficiently in-depth for alternative views to be explored and debate to be stimulated.”

This agenda still exists today, and the broadcaster is required to go to “our regulator [OFCOM] every year… to review and validate that we’ve been delivering against those requirements.

“The Channel is doing very well at the moment. It’s having a great run, and has recently had its licence renewed for a further ten years following an in-depth review by OFCOM.”

Digital  DISRUPTION

Traditional television consumption has dropped over the past decade. The wave of technological change has disrupted and re-shaped the industry, forcing broadcasters to up their game. Will these changes affect Channel 4’s ability to provide diverse programming?

“How we deliver our programmes is changing – but who we are doesn’t change,” says Gurassa.

Indeed, the trend to consume entertainment online and the arrival of new competitors such as Netflix, has led to Channel 4 increasing the range and availability of its own original content and catch up through ‘All 4’ its own online portal and apps. Gurassa points to ‘Walter Presents’ – a series of hand-picked World Dramas featuring shows such as Deutschland ’83, available exclusively through ‘All 4’s’ online catch up platform.

Yet ‘All 4’ has not limited its digital innovation to live streaming. “Take something like Facebook,” says Gurassa, “There’s an explosion of the use of our news content there, of people wanting to share our content with friends through their [online social] network.”

Have there been any downsides to the digital changes? On the contrary, says Gurassa, “there have been some great positives… once you start to do things digitally you gain a much better insight in to your viewers and the viewers have more control of what, when, where and how they watch.’’

“Given we’re an advertising funded organisation, we receive no government money, we can now offer much better insights and data to advertisers to help improve how they target their campaigns. It’s an exciting evolution, and we think we’re at the leading edge of it.”

The journey

Working at the ‘leading edge’ of digital innovation is nothing new to Gurassa. In the mid 2000s he spent over four years as Chairman of Lovefilm (now Amazon Prime).

“Initially [Lovefilm] was in the home entertainment space, an online business based on DVD distribution and then a pioneer in streaming content into people’s homes.”

But the start of Gurassa’s innovative digital career can be traced all the way back to his time at the University of York in the mid-1970s.

“I had a midnight show on the student radio station, URY,” he says, “though I’m not sure many people listened!

“URY was very pioneering station in those days. The mere fact then that we had the station and we could broadcast from the University was hugely exciting.”

Indeed, not long before Gurassa joined the station it had become the first radio station independent of the BBC to broadcast legally in the UK.

As well as URY, Charles’ time at York – where he studied Economics – taught him “that you can turn your hand to different things. You don’t have to be boxed in.”

Gurassa’s game plan

‘Boxed in’ is certainly not a term one would use to describe Gurassa’s career. He has spent the last twelve years working across the commercial and not for profit sectors. He has also taken “deliberate” steps back from his career to focus on his children.

Surely, I query, he must have had some sort of ‘game plan’ from the beginning to have achieved such success in both professional and personal life? This is met with a chuckle.

“No! I have always been attracted to things I find interesting, so I started my career in the travel industry. As a young person I thought it would be a great idea to be in an industry that pays you to travel. I spent nearly four years in Hong Kong in the early 80s running Thomas Cook’s business there and then opening it up in China.”

At the age of 47 Charles took “a deliberate decision to move from full time executive work to non-executive work” to enable him to have more time with his children while they were growing up.

“I wanted to be around more than full-time executive work at a senior level allowed me to do . But now they’re off at university or grown up teenagers I’ve become unbelievably boring and embarrassing to them – so working more is fine and I’ve quite deliberately increased what I do.”

Having achieved so much, Charles is modest when asked to give advice to recent graduates. “I’m cautious of using my own experience as a model for undergraduates; the world isn’t the same place today. I think it’s a much more competitive place for graduates coming into the world of work.”

Instead, he shares “the best piece of advice from a guy who ran a big French glass manufacturer. His motto was ‘always aim for someone to leave the room feeling better than when they entered it.’”