What has Channel 4 ever done for us?

Would Channel 4’s commitment to innovation, experiment and creativity survive privatisation?

John Newbigin
17 December 2015
 Rasulov/ Shutterstock. All rights reserved.

Photographer: Rasulov/ Shutterstock. All rights reserved.

What’s the point of Channel 4? Deliberately created to provide a platform for a noisy gaggle of independent TV producers, and thus shake up the then deadweight production duopoly of the BBC and ITV, it has a good claim to be the catalyst for what has become the most dynamic and successful independent TV production sector in the world – an early and possibly unique example of a dramatically successful policy intervention on behalf of the creative industries. 

But that was 30 years ago.  What’s it done since?  It’s been a champion for diversity, sometimes exhaustingly and even tiresomely so when it comes to issues of sex and sexuality, though let’s not forget the Paralympics.  It’s been central to the dynamism of independent British cinema, combining creative risk-taking and successful talent development with enough Oscars to make any Hollywood major envious.  It’s been a real pioneer in a range of online services, most of which have probably escaped the notice of anyone over the age of 21. It also provides a significant quantity of educational content aimed, pretty successfully, at kids who need it and, judging by the figures, appreciate it.  It runs one of the best TV news programmes anywhere, with a focus on international events that most mainstream broadcasters avoid, and it cranks out current affairs documentaries in a way other broadcasters haven’t done for a couple of decades. Leaving aside the fact that it also produces a vast amount of crap – some of it almost as crappy as the crap you find on most other channels – it still does all those interesting and unusual things today, and that makes our media world a little richer than it would otherwise be.  And so it should.  That’s what it’s there for.  The Communications Act of 2003 requires Channel 4 to “demonstrate innovation, experiment and creativity in the form and content of programmes” and to “exhibit a distinctive character”.  It doesn’t even have to do these things on-air as a conventional broadcaster; Schedule 9 of the Act simply says it should “make a broad range of relevant media content of high quality”. 

 Do these things still need doing (even if they’re not being done as well as they might be)?   Do they really enrich today’s media landscape with its myriad channels and endless platforms?   The short answer must be ‘yes’.  TV still has a long way to go in addressing almost any aspect of diversity – it needs all the help it can get.  British independent cinema benefits hugely from having a variety of gateways for talent to be picked up and funded – every review of government film policy makes that point.  High quality content on-air and online to help young people make responsible life choices sounds like a good idea and the market is not exactly over-crowded with providers.  Are we so well served with news and current affairs that we don’t need the exceptional quality of C4 News and the great variety of documentaries brought to us by Unreported World and Dispatches?   And it’s worth mentioning that at the moment we get all these things for free.  With the end of analogue broadcasting and its protected spectrum, C4 costs the public purse not a penny.

 A second question - Would these things all happen if there were no C4?  Impossible to answer but there doesn’t appear to be much competition to provide most of these services and, since they’re there and, on the whole, are seen to be a ‘good thing’, and are provided at no expense to the viewing public and at no unfair competitive cost to other media businesses, why take the risk of getting rid of them?

A third question - Would these things be done better if C4 were in private hands?    The argument is made that C4 is now too small to survive in a world of mighty media giants.   A big buyer would bring efficiencies of scale, would invest in better quality programmes and we would all be better off than we are today.  All it would require would be for Ofcom to insist that the programme budget was protected.  That’s all? It stretches the imagination that a private owner (probably a large non-UK based conglomerate) would undertake, willingly or unwillingly, to be any more rigorous than the present management about being ‘creative’ and ‘distinctive’.  The argument is made that the C4 senior execs are paying themselves too much.  Will senior staff costs be reduced in the event of privatisation?  If they were, it would be an event without precedent in the entire history of privatisations.  No doubt there would be efficiency savings elsewhere (aka staff redundancies, which would mean less attention to fostering relationships with new talent, new programme ideas, new production companies and public service style back-up services).  But to combine these arguments and suggest that a private owner would do all of the above:- ring-fence the programme budget, enforce the remit, nurture new production indies, reduce executive pay -  and still pay a dividend to all those shareholders who, presumably are going to be at least as interested in getting a good rate of return on their money as getting the occasional good program on their TV set at home is … well, it would stretch the talents of Darren Brown – in other words, it’s increible.

The UK’s media industries are riding high at the moment, whether you look at film, TV or video gaming.  We’re well served by a very mixed ecology in which public funding and commercial funding compete with and complement each other.  We also have the remains of a pretty good education system which helps to feed the talented and creative start-up businesses that are part of the UK’s continuing success in the global creative economy.  To have a substantial organisation that helps to shape and hone that talent, helps develop those new business models and give a high-profile platform to small indies is to have a truly valuable public service, especially when it comes at no cost to the public.  Could C4 be doing more to live up to its remit?  Of course.  Should Ofcom give it more of a kicking?  Of course.  Would any of these things happen if C4 was in the ownership of a transnational media conglomerate?  Of course not. 

A final question – why not sell Channel 4 and safeguard its public service functions by putting the proceeds in a ring-fenced pot of contestable funding open to all?  In the very unlikely event of the Treasury agreeing to such an initiative, the question arises - who would decide how the money in the pot would be allocated?  It would require an experienced, objective and independent commissioner, a sort of … son of Channel 4.  But it would be a child with short life expectancy because after half a dozen years, at most, the pot would be exhausted – and that would be the end of that.

Twenty years ago the then Chairman of Channel 4, Michael Bishop, was able to persuade the government of the day, toying with the idea of selling off Channel 4, that to do so would kill the model.  That was at a time when commercial TV companies had generous margins. Programme budgets, back-office costs, executive pay:- none of them were under significant pressure.  The media world, and TV in particular, is in a very different place today.  Margins are squeezed.  Budgets, operating costs, staffing are all under real pressure.   If Channel 4 is now too small to survive on its own and still be distinctive, Channel 4 as the privately owned subsidiary of a large international media empire would very soon either stop being distinctive, or just stop – and its meagre assets dissolved.   When I asked a senior Channel 5 executive the other day what the current owners, Viacom, thought of the channel, his response was that he wasn’t sure that Viacom actually were aware of the fact they owned it but, if they were, they didn’t seem to know what it did and didn’t particularly care, as long as the financial projections stacked up.  Let us hope that is not also true of our own dear government’s understanding of the value of Channel 4.  


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