Over the past year I’ve written a number of articles about the possible privatisation of Channel 4. They perhaps seem a little contradictory.
As I don’t intend to write about the issue again until there are solid developments, I thought I might pull together my thoughts.
On the one hand, I have both great affection and respect for the Channel 4 of the 80s and 90s.
I am also in no doubt about the sincerity of the concern amongst independent production companies. Channel 4 does a lot of good work supporting smaller indies and plays a part in helping new people break into broadcasting.
The problem is that these arguments do not wash with the public. There is one key issue for them – does Channel 4 look and feel different to other commercial channels?
For some time it hasn’t felt different enough. This means, sadly, that the channel no longer seems to enjoy the same affection and respect it once enjoyed. It cannot live off its past.
Demonstrating why privatisation would actually be a good thing for anyone but the Treasury is a much harder thing but would viewers notice much change?
Channel 4 itself does not accept the basic premise that its business model is broken.
Politics is about both the heart and the head. You may have an instinctive sense of what is right or wrong in principle but these emotional arguments need backed up by cold, scientific analysis.
Channel 4 and its supporters can advance strong economic arguments. Some of its supporters may well believe private ownership to simply be wrong in principle and their economic arguments appear to back that up.
But the real argument is about so much more than economics. Broadcasting is about nothing if it is not about the emotional response of viewers to programmes – their love, respect or appreciation.
And this is where it all falls down. Too much of modern Channel 4 looks to the public as if it simply exists to deliver an audience to advertisers.
It is hard to tell your friends in the pub – or in Channel 4’s case the wine bar or independent coffee shop – that something precious is in danger if they simply see Channel 4 as the home of England football, endless lifestyle and total schlock.
It is all heartbreaking for those of us so aware of all the good done by Channel 4 over the years.
Questioning the motivation of the current government – or the competency of individual politicians – misses the point. Either the public will lose something special or they won’t? The same arguments could be advanced by another government in the future.
Perhaps if Channel 4 can articulate a creative vision of its future it can still avoid privatisation? A vision to inspire hearts AND minds of a schedule which provides a distinct, public service alternative to the BBC.
And there is a lesson for the BBC here too. It cannot take its role for granted. It needs to make sure its programmes and schedules are always distinctive and include plenty of prominent programmes others might not commission. If individual services seem just like those provided by the market, it loses its purpose.
The BBC needs to appeal to everyone but it also needs to treasure its core audience and programmes. Not an easy circle to square but one that is more vital now than ever.
PICTURED: Channel 4 sting. COPYRIGHT: Channel 4 Television Corporation.