Channel 4 and the digital revolution

As Channel 4’s current Twitter biography states, it has been “altogether different” since its launch in 1982. Karl Warner (Politics, 2001) is currently sister channel E4’s Controller and Head of Youth & Digital. He shares his insights on the battle with streaming giants, diversity in front of and behind the camera – and of course on ‘how to get into telly’.


If there was ever a question about our couch potato modern lives, then recent pandemic-enforced lockdowns certainly answered them. According to UK media watchdog Ofcom the average adult spent nearly six and a half hours a day during the first lockdown watching TV or online video, with 12 million new customers signing up to streaming services.

It’s within this fierce battle for our viewing attention that Channel 4 and E4 continue to punch well above their weight – and as Karl Warner tells us simply, “My job is to find the best ideas and talent possible and make them into the best possible content or shows.”

It’s likely you will have found yourself in the middle of a conversation, or at least overhearing one, about the likes of It’s A Sin or Below Deck over the last six months and its current viewer favourite, Married at First Sight: UK. All water-cooler telly which Karl and colleagues helped bring to air.

A political decision

Karl actually studied Politics here at Nottingham, perhaps not the degree you might expect from someone responsible for some of the biggest cult TV programmes of recent years. And if his mother had had her own way, his career may have followed an entirely different path.

“When I was about to graduate I was put in touch with Endemol (the makers of Big Brother). They had a show in Kavos, Corfu, called Bar Wars and they needed runners. I always remember my mum being so disappointed and worried because she spent all this time getting me to the university, doing a degree like Politics, hoping that I might go into the civil service and me saying, "No I'm off to Kavos for 12 weeks!"

And despite graduating 20 years ago, Karl’s advice for anyone looking to get into the industry is still much the same today as it was then.

“TV's a funny industry, from the outside looking in it looks quite opaque, people wonder how you get in, and there isn't an obvious career path in front of you. I'd give the same advice I’ve been giving for 20 years. Get some work experience, get in as a runner - most of the senior executives in television, me included, started out as runners, but it's still the best way you get to understand how it all works.”

Demystifying diversity

Of course many will still argue the industry can be a closed shop to most, with accusations of a lack of diversity a common call, or perhaps misconception?

“I'm from a working class background with a single mum, lucky enough to go to Nottingham. But that was through a lot of hard work on my mum's part - and some hard work on my part - and I was able to access television as an industry.

“I think it's open to all sorts of people because creativity relies on diversity. That's not to say we haven't had a problem with diversity because we have. In most areas, particularly at senior level it's dominated by white, middle-class people and quite a lot of men.

“Of course diversity is not just about skin colour. When you talk about diversity what are you actually talking about? Disability, sexuality or social class? It should be all of those things. Creativity thrives when there are different voices, opinions and perspectives - and there's tension.”

This makes all the more sense at Channel 4, which is currently under the looming threat of privatisation as a government consultation comes to a close.

“Because of the remit we've got, we're able to commission shows because we think they are really important regardless of how well they might rate. That unique model we have, being publicly owned but commercially funded, allows you to be completely self-sufficient and sustainable but also deliver shows that represent unheard voices or that nobody else would do.

“We are a bit spikier, a bit edgier and we do take risks that others wouldn't take and make shows that others wouldn't make. I love the channel for that, it fits me as a person and my sensibilities too.

It’s a people thing

For Karl, regardless of debate or discussion, it ultimately boils down to one simple idea, which needs no overcomplication.

“Television's about people. Everybody wants to have a connection with each other and you have to try and find a way to do that in your own way. If you're unable to connect with people it's much harder. In television it's not only connecting with people on an interpersonal level but also thinking how I can connect with an audience of 10 million people.

“I think about talent the same way I'd think about people down the pub. If they're not warm, likeable, show vulnerability, are flawed somehow and aren't entertaining or funny then I'm not interested in them. That's what makes good telly.”