Channel 4 is critical infrastructure for the ‘Northern Powerhouse’

We shouldn’t jeopardise a unique creative and economic contributor to the regions by tinkering with its ownership.  

Alex Connock
16 March 2016
Northern obsessions- Manchester United.jpg

Northern passions: Manchester United

‘Industrial policy.’ There’s a sexy phrase. It will set the heart racing right up there with ‘solutions provider’ and ‘constituency chairman’. It reeks of the 1970s: failure, When the Lights Went Out and historic government memos read by PHD students in Sussex between episodes of Countdown.

But the fact is that in our glossy, perhaps a little self-righteously autonomous UK television industry, we’ve always been part of, and massive beneficiaries of, a deliberate, multi-faceted, and incredibly successful industrial policy. It’s no less thought thorough, or effective, or long termist, than China’s entry into electronics over the past decade, or France’s nuclear power generation.

TV workers in Britain should be thanking civil servants every morning before work for the benign environment we have been bequeathed – whether we are eating avocado on toast at the Soho House, or a Gregg’s jumbo sausage roll in Sunderland.

Northern culture- Sunderland's National Glass Centre.jpg

Northern Arts: National Glass Centre, Sunderland

The effective state-funding of the BBC – a deliberate industrial policy – was the pivotal contributor to Britain’s global leadership in radio and TV technology and content across an almost 80-year span from the 1930s to the present day.

ITV was built by very impressive entrepreneurs in the 1960s, but they operated around the visionary policy architecture of state-mandated regional advertising monopolies. Those funded a federal content production operation that incubated regional creative expertise as improbable (at the time) as global investigative current affairs made in the imploding factory economy of Manchester, or global natural history programmes based from provincial, airport-free Norwich.

Into this mix came Channel 4.

It was created in 1982 – we should not forget – by Thatcherite free marketeers, working with civil servants, with the explicit remit of encouraging innovation, experiment and cultural diversity. Even if you did that same thing today, it would feel quite forward-thinking as an industrial policy. Launched by a Scots presenter with teeth twenty years ahead of his time (whatever happened to him?) the channel has brought us, besides much else, extraordinary Northern programming from Shameless to Queer as Folk, from This is England to The Tube, from Brookside and Hollyoaks, to much of Dispatches.

The public/private policy construct behind Channel 4 soon translated into the methodical creation, through commissioning, of a whole new and nationwide sector – independent production. It went on to put British formats and creators in a world-leading position, create thousands of jobs, and put a whole generation of lucky folk who sold hit-format-creating indie businesses in a decade-long global acquisition boom, into large mansions from Notting Hill to Glasgow’s West End.

And after that Sky, as it now is, whilst powerfully free-market in origin, became the final major species in British TV’s mixed woodland. We now have a rich ecology of production, commercial models, technology platforms and public service ideologies that is the absolute envy of the world, and not least for its sheer genetic diversity. In consequence as a nation we make some of the best content, we are one of the best content exporters, we have massive choice not only in what to watch on TV, but also in what kind of body produces it, where they are, and who owns it. By the time you add Netflix and Amazon too, it’s hard to see any form of TV production choice we do not have – and you couldn’t say that of the US.

Popping the London bubble

Northern Powerhouse- TV at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry.jpg

Made in the North: TV at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry

Britain’s visionary TV industrial policy and its impact are not just historic either. Happily we still have an industrial policy that’s a very good thing on the ground – and especially in the North of the nation.

‘Far too much media exists in a London bubble,’ said BBC Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark at a recent Royal Television Society event. ‘We need to get the BBC to reflect what’s going on elsewhere.’ That kind of thinking at the top level of the BBC put modern buildings in Manchester and Glasgow full of UK-wide productions, which have thrived as creative centres even whilst commissioning remained perplexingly London-based. Whatever tinkering government did with the licence fee, World Service and so forth during the period, the basic principle of a state-backed broadcasting behemoth that puts its footprint across the North is probably stronger than ever, and 5,000 TV jobs in Manchester alone, a significant economic footprint, speak for its success.

Creatively too, the North is on TV, from BBC Breakfast to Happy Valley, from Coronation Street to Emmerdale, for a concoction of reasons that owe easily as much to state-mandated industrial five-year plans as effervescent free market economics. If we think that cultural impact is worth having for society – which I do – we need to not forget that when thinking about policy going forward. It means not putting total faith in the Invisible Hand, and continuing state industrial interventions. And that, you will be happy to hear, now brings to an end the 1980s economics essay.

Northern Passions- The Stone Roses.jpg

Northern Creativity: The Stone Roses

So what does Channel 4 contribute? And why does an industrial vision for the UK content production business matter when we talk about a potential privatisation?

Ofcom said in its recent Review of Public Service Broadcasting: ‘Public service broadcasters’ content forms the cornerstone of programme production in the devolved Nations and English regions outside London.’

It is absolutely right. Since launch, Channel 4 has spent £10bn on content and spends around £430m a year on UK original content. Channel 4 used 338 production companies last year across TV, digital and film and accounts for 36% of all spending on indies by the public service broadcasters (a higher proportion than BBC 1 and 2 combined, though I should for transparency say that these statistics came from Channel 4’s own policy team rather than my own, otherwise tireless, research on the ground.)

More specifically, in the four years from 2010 to 2014, Channel 4 invested £720m in content outside London – a hefty 42% of its total content spend over that period. £351.6m of this was invested in commissions from the North of England, and that’s an enormous percentage of the production market there. In 2014, Channel 4 spent £153m on production in the Nations and Regions, £62m of which was in the North of England. More than 50% of hours on the main channel were from Nations and Regions productions in 2014. You get the picture.

Interestingly too, even though Channel 4 could be argued to have missed the digital revolution first time around (in that it didn’t find and back a Facebook), it has used a VC-style approach through its Alpha fund to back startups across the North, Scotland and Northern Ireland. (This is investment in a very loose sense, as it combines commissioning with investment, around a noble cause of building indie businesses.) Channel 4 has also been actually investing straight cash in up-and-running companies like Leeds’ True North, with which it also trades creatively; True North is by far Leeds’ most creatively and commercially visible indie. 

Northern Powerhouse

Northern Channel 4- Fisayo Akinade from Cucumber.jpg

Northern programmes: Fisayo Akinade, from C4 drama Cucumber

Creatively, the particular ethic of Northern wordplay, no-nonsense humour (or whatever other Phoenix Nights clichés one pulls out of the toolbag) are profitably seen across Channel 4’s output – not just historical, but also contemporary.

Cucumber, Banana and Tofu were the natural successors of Queer As Folk. Paul Abbott (now based in Venice, California but still with a powerful ear to the Northern voice) made No Offence in 2015. Warp Films of Sheffield made Shane Meadows’ This Is England about life in the North in the 1980s and 90s, ‘from the Stone Roses to the Thatcher Years and Madchester,’ as Channel 4 described it. Fresh Meat was both about Manchester (a thinly disguised MMU, Britain’s largest university but strangely off the national radar) and filmed in Sharp Project, one of the city’s amazing converted factory spaces for digital startups. If you don’t believe that it’s amazing go and see it – and it’s a credit to Channel 4 that it was early to spot the space and the opportunity.

Northern education- Manchester Met University.jpg

Northern knowledge: Manchester Met University

Perplexingly perhaps, Channel 4 has had a huge and positive impact in the North, even whilst it has never really been there on the ground as an administrative and commissioning body. The only complaint I could find amongst producers was that some commissioners are seen as having conducted SAS-style lightning raids on Northern cities, for instance taking a conference room in a five-star hotel for sequential 15-minute pitch meetings, rather than Channel 4 putting resident personnel in situ. As Kirsty Wark said, there is life beyond London, and regional boots on the ground are a good action point for Channel 4’s board.

One place where Channel 4 did put in the ground war was Glasgow. If the phrase ‘the North’ were to be allowed to emcompass Scotland – a debate I neither embrace nor would ever win – Channel 4’s Northern footprint would be even more impressive. It has backed indies from Raise the Roof to IWC Media, Tern Television and Firecrest Films, through various schemes. It has a strong record of backing digital and games developers like Edinburgh’s Realise Digital, which works for C4 Education. Reverse the Odds, developed by Glasgow-based Chunk Games, won an international digital Emmy, and two Broadcast digital awards in 2015.

So if Channel 4’s historic and ongoing contribution to the creative life and vibrancy of the whole North of Britain is not reasonably in any doubt, why does that pertain to its ownership structure?

Why not just privatise it and tell it to carry on as now? Wouldn’t all this good stuff continue with Channel 4 in private hands?

I am an unabashed fan of shareholder ownership of creativity. I have worked constantly for the past 23 years for great, non-state-funded media companies, and have seen evidence throughout the period that creative endeavour and risk-taking sits perfectly well alongside the goal of building shareholder value. In fact, creativity and profit drive each other symbiotically.

But whilst shareholder value is by its nature geography-agnostic, Channel 4’s model brings something extra and special to the mix: an industrial policy that specifically does target geographical diversity. It’s a policy that helps the North in other words, and at the same time as pretty much everyone signs up to the strategic value of the Northern Powerhouse, but TV very often gets lost in the mix because everyone in suits is talking about trains and airports.

Northern Production- Idris Elba in Liverpool.jpg

Northern production: Idris Elba in Liverpool

At one recent major conference, TV – a major industry in Manchester – was not even on the published agenda at any point. When I asked a council official why, he said: ‘No one in local government understands how TV works.’

But Channel 4 does understand how TV works. It helped build the industry. It has an explicit industrial policy, going back to its original charter, to act (as its policy team put it) as a ‘creative greenhouse – driving economic growth, creating jobs and supporting hundreds of SMEs across the UK.’ Its rendition of shareholder value therefore goes beyond the targets of even the most corporate responsibility-minded profit/shareholder equity-driven corporation – not just because it is allowed to, but because it is supposed to. Channel 4 puts money into the regions because there is a public policy case, or a creative case, as well as, or even occasionally instead of, a good short term business case. And British TV is the better for it.

Is it possible, in 2016, to credibly combine an enthusiasm for unbridled creative and commercial free market entrepreneurialism – that’s me – with an appreciation for the benefits of long term strategic planning and market intervention by government? Is it possible for the state to own assets that function commercially, incubate startup businesses, trade with profitable global corporations, create powerful export numbers and enrich creative value across the full spectrum of the nation, both geographic and cultural?

An emphatic yes. It’s possible. That’s what’s happened in the UK television industry. Long may it continue. Let’s keep Channel 4 as it is.

Extracted from


Edited By John Mair, Fiona Chesterton,David Lloyd and Richard Tait (with Ian Reeves)

Published by Abramis June 7th 2016 £19.95 

Available on Amazon or in advance from [email protected]

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