The press has been full of stories about programmes being axed, delayed or curtailed on economic grounds.
Yet only months ago Channel 4 was insisting it was in top form as it fought privatisation.
Opponents of Channel 4 privatisation always insisted it was ideologically driven – a “solution in search of a problem”.
In particular, they worried about what it could mean for independent production companies – especially the smaller ones which may be much more reliant on Channel 4 or been helped on their way by the channel.
The details of how the downturn in the TV advertising market has affected Channel 4 are not a matter of public record. The channel does not have to give regular trading updates in the way that ITV plc or STV regularly issue statements to the stock market.
But ITV plc recently said its advertising was down 10pc in the first three months of the year.
Channel 4’s recent decisions include axing at least one programme which had been recently commissioned, curtailing the next series of The Last Leg and allegedly delaying the next series of Naked Attraction.
The channel insists it is not facing a financial crisis but none of this will be good news for the people working for the affected indies – the likelihood is that many of them are on fixed-term contracts or freelancers.
An obvious caveat to note.
It may simply be the case that some of the decisions being reported by the press are actually creative or editorial – not financial as such.
Perhaps an individual programme was proving problematic, needed a rest or had come to its natural end. Channel 4 in the old days was often keen to rest programmes to give something else a chance.
Perhaps too there was “oversupply” to deal with and it was sensible planning to delay a new production.
It has been claimed before in TV – and will no doubt be claimed again – that programmes which simply weren’t good enough for one reason or another were getting the chop on financial grounds. It’s always a good way to spare the blushes. That may potentially be the case with some individual decisions.
But none of this looks good.
The privatisation debate served as a reminder of how many viewers were left perplexed about just what made modern Channel 4 special. Once a few key programmes like Channel 4 News and Derry Girls had been named it was hard to explain what viewers, rather than the industry, would truly miss out on regularly.
The focus is increasingly on Channel 4 as a streaming service. But what of the fourth channel itself?
Channel 4 funds some programmes which get small audiences but which are of economic significance or give the channel some character. Steph’s Packed Lunch supports jobs in Leeds but often gets only 100 – 200k viewers. The channel would no doubt argue it’s providing an alternative to cosy daytime TV elsewhere and this is money well spent.
If times are hard can it afford to keep on funding so many shows which may, inevitably, be cross-subsidised?
At other times its daytime service feels like watching a box set with no chance to hit the pause button – but the ratings are similar.
Endless episodes in a row of Frasier, The Simpsons and King of Queens seem more suited to a digital channel.
A lot of the daytime continuity now seems to be very generic too. The announcer will simply plug a show later in the week or something available online – not what’s on now or next.
I’m not sure if daytime continuity is now recorded but as the same scripts are sometimes repeated it might as well be.
So much for those of us who still like to think of announcers as the live human link between the broadcaster and viewer – even during a succession of recorded programmes and repeats.
Hopefully C4’s financial troubles will be short-lived.
But do we really need to start expecting more of the fourth channel itself? A clear space with a unique personality which provides a public service alternative to the BBC – not a boiled in the bag channel which still comes up with the odd gem amongst the schlock and the stuff which anyone else might as well have shown.
PICTURED: Channel 4 ident. COPYRIGHT: Channel 4 Television Corporation.