Channel 4 is making all the wrong moves
While the decision not to privatise was the right one, the recent move to drop The Andrew Neil Show while spending on US-owned dramas doesn’t bode well for the broadcaster.
With television companies, as with any other kind of business, there is often a canary in the coal mine that warns of troubles to come.
In the case of Channel 4, The Andrew Neil Show is that canary, or more precisely the fact that the early evening Sunday programme is not coming back this year after an initial 10-week run.
Channel 4 insists the show has not been axed. Yet the fact that, apparently to save money, it will not be appearing for the rest of this year, at a time of continuing political turmoil as the next general election begins to appear on the horizon, speaks volumes.
Hiring Neil to present the Channel’s only political show while the threat of privatisation still seemed real appeared to be a clever move, and one that spoke of the channel’s diversity, seriousness and resilience.
Maybe 6pm on a Sunday long after the Sunday morning political shows had come and gone wasn’t the greatest scheduling but getting Neil after his departure from GB News was still a coup.
And although we think we know that the former Sunday Times editor is a right-winger in his bones, he has always been scrupulously impartial in his political interviewing. He has given everyone from whatever political party a very hard time.
While Andrew Neil does not come cheap, a studio-based programme staged in the studios of ITN can hardly be the most expensive of programming.
On 11 July Neil put out a remarkable tweet following the one-hour special that ended the first series. It noted that the programme had averaged 676,000 viewers and that the number had grown throughout the programme and peaked at 800,000 in the last 15 minutes.
“And we were on at 5.30 pm,” said Neil before adding, “See you in September.”
Except that we won’t.
Channel 4 must be extremely strapped for cash to suddenly pull such a programme for the rest of the year with no explicit promise being given that it will even come back in the election year of 2024, merely mealy-mouthed talk that no decision has yet been taken.
Surely the 12 months or so from September to the next election would be a perfect time to benefit from the forensic interviewing skills of Neil in a time when politicians have been ducking and diving — and sometimes outright lying — as never before.
The disappearance, at least for now, of such a programme is in itself a form of disgrace for such a channel, which escaped the threat of privatisation by emphasising its financial stability and long-term viability.
Advertising has fallen away, ironically at least partially because of politics, with the disastrous temporary Prime Minister Liz Truss, now allegedly — like Boris Johnson — charging £20,000 an hour for her speeches.
Andrew Neil has held them all to account, not least the performance so far of Rishi Sunak, and the silence from September will be embarrassing for the Channel.
There are other signs of financial strain at Channel 4 and a number of programmes have been either been axed or delayed.
The excellent documentary series Rescue: Extreme Medics has been canned after only two seasons, although the Channel claimed this had more to do with ratings than finances. Other programmes have been put on hold such as plans for a daytime series of Kirstie Allsopp’s Christmas special, Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas.
Yet how do you square such signs of financial strain with the purchase of more than 1,000 hours of US drama from Disney? No purchase price was announced, but series such as the sitcom Abbott Elementary, sci-fi drama The X Files and crime procedural Bones do not come cheap.
Or is it that they do indeed come cheap compared with the cost of making original British drama and comedies for streaming?
It sounds a bit like Channel 4 going back to its origins, when it was criticised for the number of cheap US library programmes used to eke out its modest budget.
There have also been rumours that jobs may go at the Channel and questions over how long chief executive Alex Mahon plans to stay.
It all seems a long way from the great triumph that followed the departures of Boris Johnson and his Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who were hell-bent on privatisation.
It now feels a little queasy to remember the words in January of then-Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan when she said the Channel would not be sold because “Channel 4 was a British success story and a linchpin of our booming creative industries.”
While the decision not to privatise was the right one, and something supported by virtually the entire British television industry, was the prospectus used to win just a little too shiny?
It looks as if there is something more fundamental going on here than just a drop — we hope temporary — of a few percentage points of advertising revenue. After all Channel 4 is a £1bn a year business.
It would be a good time to clear up some of the uncertainties in the upcoming annual report and hear of Alex Mahon’s continuing commitment to Channel 4.
There are always others worse off than you
Unfortunately both Channel 4 and the BBC could also suffer unrelated blows from the decision to sell-off super-Indy All3Media for as much as, that magic figure again, £1bn.
The company was created 20 years ago by three refugees from ITV: Steve Morrison, chief executive of Granada, David Liddiment ITV’s head of programming, and Jules Burns Granada’s MD of operations. It looks as if it will be bought by ITV, which could then control the destiny of programmes such as Channel 4’s Gogglebox, made by an All3Media company, as is the new BBC hit, Traitors.
But whatever the air of uncertainty currently surrounding Channel 4 you can be sure there are always others worse off than you.
Not so far away the Irish national public service broadcaster RTE is engulfed in scandal over alleged hidden payments to Ryan Tubridy, host of its most famous programme, The Late Late Show.
Unfortunately false statements were made about Tubridy’s salary to staff and a “slush fund” for corporate hospitality revealed. Director general Dee Forbes, who is Irish, but who spent most of her career working in commercial television in the UK, was first suspended and then resigned.
It makes the troubles of Channel 4 look like thin drama by comparison.
Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.