FEATURE1 August 2023

Talking about my generation: Channel 4 and Gen Z

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Channel 4 is on a mission to engage young people across its platforms, and it wants to use evidence to make sure its content, programming and brand stay relevant to a generation that is increasingly misunderstood. Katie McQuater speaks to the broadcaster’s James Hamilton, and Craft’s Konrad Collao, to find out more about its Generation Z-focused research study.


Young people are all ‘woke’. Depending on what you hear and read, they are all angry activists or wannabe TikTok influencers. Of all the cohorts, the younger generations seem to get the shortest shrift in terms of stereotypes and lazy generalisations. Despite its size – comprising around eight million Britons – Generation Z is often portrayed as a homogeneous mass.

As a public service broadcaster, Channel 4’s brand is heavily shaped by its remit to champion unheard voices, innovate and stand up for diversity. The channel’s existence is dependent on its relationship with younger people – so it needs to understand them and try to get in front of some of the misconceptions about them, in order to take a nuanced approach to its Gen Z audience and compete with multiple other demands on their attention.

“We have a remit to speak to and represent all of Britain, but with a specific focus on understanding younger people. You can’t do that without talking to them and seeking to understand them,” says James Hamilton, who leads the audience planning function at Channel 4.

In what was “probably the biggest piece of research” carried out since Hamilton joined Channel 4 a decade ago, the broadcaster spent almost 12 months working with research partner Craft on a mixed-method study, as it looked to delve into the world of young people and understand more about their motivations, aspirations, fears and challenges.

“This research crucially wanted to hear from young people themselves: to walk in their shoes and find out what it means to be a young person in Britain today,” says Hamilton.

“As an aside, I’m constantly bombarded with a steady stream of often spurious, sometimes really poor, research that presents Gen Z as being either saints, sinners or victims, and I’ve always looked to bring more nuance to the conversation around young people.”

The extent of that lack of nuance in assumptions about young people was one of the more surprising themes to emerge from the ‘Beyond Z’ research, adds Hamilton. “The surprise was how poorly the picture is painted of young people today. They’re not all in conflict with older generations – there’s far more that unites us as people than divides us along generational lines.”

Channel 4 chief executive Alex Mahon went one step further in her assessment. In a speech about the research findings in November 2022, she said: “Having studied the results, I’m asking myself: is this the most misjudged group of people in our recent history?”

Quantifying trends

Hamilton commissioned and ran the Beyond Z project with Georgina Harvey, who works on the commercial side of the research team at Channel 4, and the project had a range of stakeholders from across commissioning, marketing, brand and commercial.

“From a stakeholder perspective, it was something that touched on pretty much every aspect of the business, so we canvassed as many key stakeholders as possible to make sure we were answering the questions that were keeping people up at night,” says Hamilton.

With a broad brief, the project began with desk research and key expert interviews that fed into a phase one quant stage. Initial quant findings were shared internally and that helped to shape the qualitative stage, with ethnography, depth interviews and filming taking place. Then Craft carried out a second stage of quant. At that point, a lot of unexpected insights had emerged from the qual – particularly around social media consumption and its effect on body image – and Channel 4 wanted to find out more.

“We wanted to quantify and to establish whether these really were trends that were affecting large numbers of young people, not just part of our sample,” explains Hamilton.

Craft founder Konrad Collao adds: “We really wanted to go back and validate or disprove our hypothesis. We had these hunches that were borne out in the quant really strongly.”

One such finding, and one of the main insights picked up in mainstream press coverage of the research, was an emerging norm of young people being simultaneously illiberal and progressive – prompting Channel 4 to coin the term ‘young illiberal progressives’.

While significantly more liberal on some issues, the research also found that a quarter of Gen Z say they “have very little tolerance for people with beliefs that they disagree with”, while almost half agreed that “some people deserve to be cancelled”.

Additionally, while social media is often viewed – among older generations – as a source of mental health anguish for young people, this research found that socioeconomic issues – such as cost of living and lack of affordable housing – had a bigger negative impact on their mental health. However, one in five reported that they have paused their social media use to protect their mental health and one in nine have given it up permanently.

“It’s a classic generational battleground; older generations are using [social media] as a lightning rod for arguments with younger generations about behaviour that simply didn’t exist for them. It behoves us to understand that behaviour, rather than crudely label it or castigate it,” says Hamilton.

Having a relatively open brief from the client, says Collao, was “quite helpful” from a recruitment perspective. “The subject was life, the universe and everything else. We just needed them to be who they were. We essentially just had a demographic.”

In addition to the mainstream sample, the researchers worked with around 10 “cutting-edge participants” that were cast rather than sampled, and these included a TikTok creator, a trans rights activist, a climate change activist, an e-sports specialist, and even a cassette collector. Collao explains that this was because the researchers recognised interesting things happen at the fringes of culture – and “some of it may influence what happens in future and some might not; it might just be total outliers”.

Working with a broad brief was “lovely”, adds Collao: “Doing these broad pieces is really stimulating intellectually – but it is a challenge to try to fit it all in.”

Craft had the challenge of balancing the need to be exploratory and the need to be more focused with the qualitative research, so it split its budget – of time, questions and activities – into two chunks. One was open and exploratory, asking participants to film a day in their work or school life, or a typical day with family and friends, for example. There were also thematic tasks, where researchers asked more purposive questions around specific issues.

A vast dataset also presented another significant technical and analytical challenge – the self-shot video ethnography generated 43 hours of footage that the researchers had to not only deal with on a practical level, but also make sense of.

While offering a treasure trove of insight, a dataset of that size required some thought to ensure individuals working on it weren’t overwhelmed, and to work out how to go about understanding endless reams of footage. “Nobody can sit there and watch 43 hours of video and make sense of it,” says Collao.

The team devised processes to share the workload, including sticking to a structured analytical framework. “It was good that we had time to do this – there was a lot of data and it was so vast, topically, that it required a lot of cognitive effort and time to breathe, to be able to start to boil it down,” Collao explains.

With the research touching on topics such as mental health and body image, there was also an emotional element to the management of the vast amount of footage gathered.

“Over time, you form bonds with these participants, and they form bonds with you,” says Collao. “Those bonds allowed us to respectfully, with their permission and collaboration, show these young people in all their depth.”

At the end of 2022, Channel 4 launched a current affairs strand, Untold, aimed at 16 to 34-year-olds. Launched primarily with a digital-first approach for All4, but also with linear slots, the strand focuses on producing Dispatches-style documentaries aimed at younger viewers. Its programming has included an exploration of the secret lives of incels (young men describing themselves as ‘involuntarily celibate’), an investigation of UK gang violence, and a film about what happens to Love Island contestants after the show ends.

Telling relevant stories

The ‘Beyond Z’ research has helped to shape the development of Untold and inform its ongoing strategy.

Channel 4’s Hamilton says: “We’ve always wanted to make sure that our independent broadcasting, in general, is doing everything it can to allow young people the right kind of access to the content that matters to them and matters to the society they are part of.”

The research highlighted that young people “don’t see themselves as separate from society; they very much see themselves as part of society”.

With that in mind, Hamilton says: “This research is shaping that continuous strategy to make sure that we remain a relevant and resonant brand, and are telling as relevant stories as possible to those audiences.”

Findings from the work are also being used to inform the tone and ongoing editorial strategy of Channel 4.0, the broadcaster’s youth-focused YouTube channel.

The research – presented in a 30-page report and launched at an industry event (pictured) that included panel discussions with young people – has also been shared with commercial partners and advertisers, who are making use of the findings and highlighting Channel 4’s credentials as a media brand with nuanced understanding of young people.

As the research had such a broad outlook, the broadcaster is also using the project as a starting point to delve into other areas, explains Hamilton.

“The research is a great springboard for shaping other, probably more content-focused research or brand and marketing research that we’ll be doing with younger audiences over the next few years,” he says.

“It presents a whole lot of questions, not least because it’s probably atypical of the kind of audience research that we would normally do, in that it wasn’t content-focused and it wasn’t a piece of media research. While we spoke to young people about their relationship with media brands and Channel 4, it didn’t talk to them massively about what they watch.”

The finding that while young people might be liberal in their perspective on human rights, but be libertarian from an economic perspective – and not classically left wing as the media often portrays them – also poses questions for Channel 4.

“That obviously has implications for how we talk to them as a brand and how we address their interests specifically in our content,” says Hamilton.

“Our brand line is that Channel 4 is altogether different – teir perspective on difference is very different from a middle-aged person’s perspective of difference.”


The Beyond Z research combined: background and desk research; interviews with youth specialists; two nationally representative quantitative research studies among 1,500 people in cohorts of 13 to 24-year-olds and over-25s; and ethnographic and qualitative research among a sample of 37 young Britons from across Britain and Northern Ireland.

  • Researchers from Craft analysed data using synthetic cohort analysis – an approach that seeks to establish the interplay between:
  • Life-stage effects – where change occurs in predictable ways as people age
  • Period effects – consistent changes in attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of a society across different demographic groups, often in response to major events
  • Cohort effects, where an age group does have different attitudes and behaviours from other groups.