Channel 4's 'Superhumans' work confirms the channel's role as a public asset

Dougal Wilson's Channel 4 Paralympics spot highlights all that is great about the broadcaster, writes Jeremy Lee.

If, as one BBC journalist indiscreetly announced on Twitter, a cheer went up in the BBC newsroom when it was announced that John Whittingdale had been sacked as culture secretary, you can only imagine the response at Channel 4’s headquarters on Horseferry Road.

The broadcaster has been under threat of privatisation for some time. So, while Whittingdale’s successor, the untried Karen Bradley, has not yet made her priorities clear, Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham can be excused for thinking he’s possibly bought some breathing space to prove the channel’s worth as a public asset.

The epic "We’re the superhumans" trailer, directed by Dougal Wilson, for Channel 4’s forthcoming coverage of the Paralympic Games, will hopefully also help to focus minds in Whitehall, and the rest of the population, back to why Channel 4 is such a special part of the broadcasting ecology.

The spot, created by 4Creative through Blink, is evidence of Channel 4 at its distinctive best – something that private ownership might threaten.

Protecting Channel 4’s independence is an article of faith for many, but not all, in the industry.

Sure, Channel 4 wallows in a bath of cash – it has assets touching the half-a-billion pounds mark that would undoubtedly be welcomed in other cash-strapped areas of the public sector, particularly the NHS.

Its Richard Rogers-designed headquarters and public-service perks are also redolent of a different era, particularly given that even the toilers at Sky Media are being relocated to the badlands of Osterley.

Equally, Channel 4’s executive salary schemes seem outrageous in an era where every other part of the public sector has been forced to rein in spending. Its sales supremo, Jonathan Allan, trousered £547,000 last year, an increase on 2014, while Abraham received an eye-watering £881,000 total – all vast multiples of the amount earned by the prime minister.

Yes, it has imperfections, particularly in the way that it lavishly rewards its staff (who are public servants, remember). However, it can perhaps be forgiven when it creates work like this Paralympics trailer – a worthy successor to its Cannes-winning "Meet the superhumans" spot for the London 2012 Paralympic Games – and proves what a positive force for societal change it can be.

The latest spot, which features 120 people with disabilities from all walks of life, is part of Channel 4’s "Year Of Disability" – a commitment to normalising an important issue that the advertising industry, much like society as a whole, sometimes struggles with.

There’s little doubt that its coverage of the 2012 Paralympics showed the remarkable achievement of its athletes. Is successor spot broadens this out to the wider disabled community.

In the pages of Campaign last week, Adam&Eve/DDB’s chief creative officer, Ben Priest, described Wilson as one of his heroes because of his ability to put genuine emotion into his work.

With "We’re the superhumans", Wilson might have done more than just that. He’s articulated wonderfully the best of what Channel 4 is in creating a positive impact and championing creativity and diversity in areas that its rivals might eschew.

And if, in some small way, this magnificent spot helps assure the future of the channel, then that’s not a bad outcome either.

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