Yet again there is debate about the possibility of privatising Channel 4. As one newspaper journalist said, this debate has been repeated more often than an episode of Come Dine with Me. But this time round, is there a real chance it could happen?
The last time Channel 4 faced privatisation, it agreed to move large numbers of jobs to Leeds and set up creative hubs in Glasgow and Bristol to see off the threat.
The biggest argument against privatisation is that it could threaten Channel 4’s purpose and take money out of programmes. There will be some within creative industries who will feel very strongly about this.
And those who remember Channel 4 in its original incarnation may feel melancholy, feeling the story of a very special channel is now coming to its end. In its original form, Channel 4 was owned by the IBA and financed by a levy on the ITV companies.
Later it became a public corporation and, until the late-90s, there were arrangements to support it financially if advertising revenue fell short. Ironically these were scrapped because Channel 4 ended up giving money to ITV as it was so successful in attracting younger and more upmarket viewers.
But back then nobody could dispute just how unique Channel 4 was. It was home to many serious programmes, minority interests and quirky and unusual entertainment. Its output was so distinctive, few of its shows would have fitted elsewhere.
Its more mainstream programmes like Countdown also widened choice – at this time, it complemented children’s programmes on ITV when late-afternoon viewing choices were limited.
But the real question for the government is whether the public know Channel 4 is actuality different from other commercial channels? Would they care if it was sold off?
Some of its modern programmes don’t seem that different to those on other channels. Market niches don’t require special ownership arrangements. Individual public service requirements could be placed on Channel 4 just like they are placed on ITV.
Yet, at its best, Channel 4 still has a distinct and special voice. Channel 4 News, Dispatches and Unreported World are all unique. Would another channel have commissioned a drama like It’s a Sin?
And some popular or safe material is, of course, necessary to provide a bedrock for risk in the absence of public funding.
Perhaps Channel 4 needs to do some marketing to make it clear just how viewers – rather than TV workers – might lose out if it were privatised?
Or perhaps Ofcom can agree a form of regulation with Channel 4 which helps ensure more of its schedule is more obviously distinct from the purely commercial channels?
The world of the 1980s and 90s has gone but can C4 still be a truly unique channel – not just a channel with some unique programmes?
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