Proposals to privatise Channel 4 have infuriated the channel’s supporters. Some in the creative sector see any move to change the channel’s ownership structure as simply wrong. They fear it will lead to money going to shareholders rather than programmes.
But could privatisation actually lead to a closer relationship with other public service broadcasters?
An intriguing possibility was raised in parliament this week by the chair of the culture select committee Julian Knight MP. He suggested Channel 4 might be bought by either ITV or BBC Studios.
There is nothing at present to suggest either of them would be interested but is the idea worthy of discussion?
The word “privatisation” conjures up fears that what was once a unique channel could become a branch office of an international conglomerate concerned about nothing except the bottom line.
It would be hard to see how British creative industries could possibly benefit from Channel 4 becoming part of a multinational business based outside the UK. But that is not the same as saying that selling off the channel to a responsible business committed to British creative industries would be wrong in principle.
Take a sale to ITV.
For its first 10 years, Channel 4 was supported by ITV – it was paid for by the ITV companies who then tried to recoup the cost by selling the advertising locally. ITV also cross-promoted Channel 4 and some ITV companies won significant, even defining, commissions from Channel 4.
Would a sale to ITV really be so wrong in principle? Clearly there would be other important issues to consider.
One would be the combined group’s share of the TV advertising market. The other would be ensuring Channel 4 was editorially separate. Ofcom could agree to tough regulatory interventions to ensure this happened.
But it might be hard to avoid the inevitability of back office savings or sharing buildings. And while Channel 4 itself is a strong brand would ITV plc be able to promise that all the digital channels would stay long-term? E4 and ITV 2 compete for similar audiences although they are distinct propositions.
A sale to BBC Studios – which would not involve licence fee money – would provoke similar discussions.
Outright opponents of privatisation are unlikely to find any option palatable.
But the thought of Channel 4 as a distinct operation supported by ITV – provided there were guarantees over programmes and independence – might be a way of reuniting two channels which were once cousins if not quite part of the same family.
Similarly it is hard to see what would be so wrong in principal about a sale to BBC Studios although the details would need proper scrutiny.
Maybe a sale to ITV could even provide opportunities.
Could Ofcom impose tough rules on Channel 4 concerning distinctiveness and the range of programmes to be shown in return for cutting regulations concerning ITV itself?
A fascinating scenario. Perhaps it’s time to debate what this “channel is for” and how that can be best achieved in the modern world rather than continue to see what was once such a special channel act as if it were a purely commercial operation some of the time to subsidise its remaining PSB obligations.
Now just imagine regulation like this:
- Channel 4 and ITV plc’s back office functions are merged. But editorial functions remain entirely separate.
- Ofcom and ITV agree tough new programme regulations for Channel 4’s main channel which strengthen (or restore) its unique character.
- These include significant regulations regarding the volumes of programmes in particular categories. For instance, at least 6 single dramas or commissioned films a year during peak or 26 hours a year of acquired programming in a language other than English. C4 in general expected to explicitly cater for minority tastes and interests of all sorts: e.g. social minorities, gardeners, opera buffs, immigrant communities, those with a serious interest in science etc.
- Ofcom and Channel 4 agree a content budget. If Channel 4’s advertising falls short then ITV agrees to subsidise it. If Channel 4 makes a surplus it is reinvested and does not go to ITV.
- Terms of trade with independent production companies protected.
- In return ITV loses all explicit PSB regulations outside news but cross-promotes Channel 4.
PICTURED: Channel 4 break bumper. COPYRIGHT: Channel 4 Television Corporation.