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Deadline looms for Channel 4 ownership consultation

Deadline looms for Channel 4 ownership consultation

Ray Snoddy analyses the Government’s consultation document on the future of Channel 4 and warns of messing with an already successful broadcasting formula

The consultation period on the future of Channel 4 closes, dramatically, at 23.45 hours on Tuesday, 14 September, 2021.

Unfortunately the most interesting question of all is whether there is any point in taking part given the Government’s expressed attitude.

As the executive summary of the Government’s consultation document states unambiguously: “The Government’s preferred option is to facilitate a change of ownership of Channel 4,” which is a euphemism for the “P” word – privatisation.

In his foreword, culture secretary Oliver Dowden puts some flesh on the bare bones of the planned privatisation.

“It is our current view, to be tested through this consultation, that a new ownership model for Channel 4 would be the best means of ensuring its future success and sustainability as a public service broadcaster and its continued contribution to the UK creative industries,” Dowden argues.

He adds that there were constraints that come with public ownership and a new owner could bring access and benefits, including access to capital, to strategic partnerships and to international markets. Private investment would also mean more content and more jobs, Dowden believes.

You could be forgiven, therefore, for thinking this is a done deal and the consultation process mere window dressing, particularly as merchant banks are thought to be already lining up for the privatisation fees and a White Paper is planned for later this year.

A truly open process would have set out three equal and perfectly rational options for the future of Channel 4 – maintenance of the status quo, modification of the status quo to give the channel greater freedom to raise capital and a third option, which might then have looked like the disruptive tearing up of nearly 40 years of public ownership.

Instead the witnesses have been led and a sale or privatisation looks like a fait accompli. 

This will inevitably seem naïve but, just for a moment, set aside all conspiracy theories and take the Government at its word that it genuinely believes that “a new ownership model” would best protect the future of Channel 4 as a public service broadcaster.

After all, it is an incontrovertible fact that national public service broadcasters everywhere are coming under intensifying financial and ratings pressure particularly from the rise of the international streaming giants and the power of their subscription bases spread across the world. 

So set aside ideology – that Conservatives usually prefer private to public ownership and broadcasting minister John Whittingdale has been in favour of privatising Channel 4 for  25 years and had to be restrained from pushing ahead with it six years ago.

For now, forget political malice as a motive and the revenge against astringent Channel 4 News coverage, in which ministers will not appear and melting blocks of ice replace them at election time.

Also, ignore any money that might come to the Treasury as the result of a sale. Accept that the Government is sincere in wanting to stick roughly to the Channel’s existing remit to be diverse and innovative and above all broadcast around 208 hours of news a year at peak times, plus 208 hours of current affairs (80 at peak) and the sums raised will be relatively trivial.

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Complete with full obligations, Channel 4 could be worth £300 million to £500 million – say up to £1 billion with reduced obligations but then it would no longer be recognisable as Channel 4.

The key question is, whether or not a change of ownership, which the Government seems so hell bent on, is the best way of  protecting the future of Channel 4.

It looks as if the Government is determined to impose its “help” on the channel whether its executives and directors want it or not, and they have made clear this is not the sort of help they need.

It still looks like a solution to a problem that either does not exist or appears manageable without a change of ownership.

The Channel 4 business will probably produce revenues of over £1 billion this year, after coping well with the pandemic crisis and, remarkably, has a record surplus.

The risks of a sale are considerable. Obviously at the moment, surpluses are ploughed into programme making and a private owner would expect profits.

Even if a new owner were benign, and ViacomCBS has turned out to be a good owner of Channel 5, there is always the danger of drift towards greater commercialism and a weakening of obligations, plus difficulties of imposing them by regulation. Smaller independents could also lose out.

The greatest risk of all is probably the most intangible – that of undermining a culture created by a unique experiment that has proved to be very successful, funding a robust public service broadcaster by commercial means.

The other major problem with the Government approach is that  most of the benefits it is claiming can only be achieved though a “new ownership model” can already be achieved. 

Channel 4 has already proved it can be innovative in the digital sphere and recently signed an extensive commercial collaboration agreement with Sky. Other international deals are perfectly possible.

If the Government seriously wants to protect the UK’s public service broadcasters step one would be to ensure prominence of  their programme guides on all devices.

As for Channel 4, how about giving it access to new capital by increasing its borrowing limits from £200 million to £300 million, a pinprick compared with the UK’s public debt of £2,224 billion.

The Government could also allow Channel 4 to own more of its programme rights. Public broadcasters were required to commission 25% of their output from independent producers.

How about inverting that percentage in the case of Channel 4 and allow it either to make or own the rights to up to 25% of what it broadcasts?

There are many ways of improving Channel4 ‘s competitive position without the risk of potentially tearing up much of what has made the channel so successful.

For those who think the risk of “a new ownership model” is too great a one to take, and who for some reason still suspect that the Government approach is being driven by ideology and political malice, don’t forget the deadline for submissions is 23.45 next Tuesday.

The Government’s mind may already have been made up but at least they will have been warned of the dangers of messing up one of the more imaginative creations of Margaret Thatcher’s Government. 

JohnDean, Creative Director, John C Dean, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 News is the only remaining, independently minded broadcast news. It holds to book those that need challenging on their views and policies, and investigates the real stories. It's loss will be another nail in the coffin of free thinking and democracy.”
HannanMajid, Filmmaker, Rainbow Collective, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 produces content that is diverse, it’s news is the best on territorial and cable tv, they give opportunities to filmmakers that challenge the status quo. Many emerging presenters from diverse backgrounds had their first opportunities at Channel 4. As a 42 year old British Bengali growing up it was the place where I could watch shows featuring people who looked like me. Like many people in the comments are saying and I fully agree it’s in the public interest to keep Channel 4 as it is and it should not be under any threat.”
JamesWalker, IT Programme Manager, NHS, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 news is the a rare gem of decent unbiased news on UK TV. As a public sector broadcaster, it must be protected from private biased interest groups. A very sad state of affairs in the UK ifCh4 is privatised.
Ch4 is an oasis of quality news journalism, public interest broadcast. It can be idiosyncratic, occasionally weird and challenging. But it can also be brilliant and has produced amazing TV for over 40 years. Privatisation of Ch4 will only deliver yet another low budget 'tabloid' TV channel, driven by profit and without a care for genunine quality.”
AlisonBrown, Communications, Frontline Communications, on 14 Sep 2021
“@channel4 and @Channel4News are without doubt the best broadcasters in the U.K., in fact anywhere today. Innovative entertainment and drama; rigorous fearless news reporting, current affairs and investigative journalism. Can’t bear the thought of losing this wonderful progressive bold channel to Tory privatised trash. This country has lost so much recently - privatising C4 would once again prove we’re powerless to influence anything.”
NickAbadzis, Writer/Artist/Filmmaker, n/a, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 is the best news show on TV. The conservative government must be really frightened of its unbiased and balanced approach to even consider fixing something that very clearly ain't broke and which, in fact, goes from strength to strength year after year. Channel 4's funding structure should be preserved exactly as it is. That is, after all, what "to conserve" means - to prevent the loss of, especially of something good, rare and increasingly under threat.”
GlenworthCummings, Does it matter?, Again, does it matter?, on 14 Sep 2021
“I watch Channel 4 for the news. Its reputation across the world is unsurpassed. We cannot afford to lose it.”
RexWalters, Retired RN, NHS, on 14 Sep 2021
“If it isn't broken (and the people running it say it isn't broken, and the people working within it say it isn't broken, and the viewers watching it say it isn't broken) then, why 'fix' it?
An agenda? Surely not?”
JustinLewis, Editor, Freelance, on 14 Sep 2021
“I know that people are, understandably, focusing on the brilliance of Channel 4 News as something that continues to question government policy and what a loss that would be if C4 lost its public service status. That's true. Especially as it is still the best news programme on television in Britain. But just in general, over the past 40 years, Channel 4 has had a track record of commissioning and broadcasting adventurous and innovative television that nobody else would make (not even the BBC, in some cases): Brookside, The Comic Strip Presents..., Dispatches, GBH, Brass Eye, Queer as Folk, Misfits, its Paralympics coverage, and just this year, It's a Sin and the recent Black to Front. Sure, some of its content is populist now, but look beyond that, and you see an organisation that is still committed to following its own independent path. It is important that governments do not interfere with broadcasters. We need journalism to call out injustice and corruption, especially with the government currently in power...”
LiamSherry, Videographer, Freelance, on 14 Sep 2021
“C4 is a fantastically run channel with a great independent mentality which allows it to produce world class independent news and brilliant tv shows.”
JessAdams, Retired, N/a, on 14 Sep 2021
“This is a vital public service. We need it to serve us the public not profit makers, Creative filming and reporting for the public: HANDS OFF WE OWN IT”
MorvernRennie, Operations & Project Manager, Scottish Parliament, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 has funded shows that no other channel would go near and the country is more culturally rich because of it. The only broadcast news which is watchable.”
BazKelly, Technical IT Consultant, PwC, on 14 Sep 2021
“This is a sad state of affairs. The Conservative Party want to control Channel 4 at all cost, & if they cannot, then they will destroy it. For example, when is the last time a Government MP or PM been interviewed on CH4 news? yes just as many & I thought, a long time, they are running scared, this is why they a rushing this through. We cannot let the Conservative Party do this. It is wrong.”
NeilMartin, Director, Ancestry, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 is one if the only reliable TV news channels left in the UK. I fully expect the Tory machine to destroy it as it stands tall against their extremism. It needs protected and its independence assured”
MargaretKinsella, Retired, NHS, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 has an excellent mix of news, documentaries and other programming. Commercial broadcasters have to put profits first for their shareholders and factual programmes tend to go.”
ArabellaTullo, N/a, N/a, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 is a beacon of innovative programming and diverse appeal. C4 news is the best news channel by a mile. Please keep C4 as a public broadcaster”
StuartAlexander, Sales, Iguitar, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 is the only trusted news source and producer of quality drama in UK! Leave alone!”
AlexPaknadel, Writer, self-employed, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 is the home of superb drama, restorative comedy and fabulously balanced news. It is profitable and it is needed. Its independence must be safeguarded, and the best way to achieve this is to keep it in public hands.”
AlexCrawford, Head of Film Insight UKI, ODEON, on 14 Sep 2021
“Aside from anything else, Channel 4's output is of a significantly higher standard than almost anybody else's - from UK based comedy and innovative drama to massively enjoyable imported programmes, there's nothing to suggest that removing the channel from public ownership would be to anybody in the public's benefit. It would be an act of absolute, head-spinning madness to do this.”
NormaBarclay, Volunteer, ., on 14 Sep 2021
“It’s incredibly sad but not at all surprising (and that’s sad too ) that the UK Government wishes to sell to private concerns the UK’s best TV channel by far, Channel Four. Of course a sell-off will diminish debate and narrow minds. Of course it will. And of course the UK Government knows it. Whoever can push back, please do with all your might.”
DavidGardiner, Clinical coder, NHS, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 news is the only decent unbiased news on UK TV. It must be protected from wealthy private interest groups. A very sad state of affairs in this failing state.”
AdrianHighland, Healthcare worker, NHS, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 has been an oasis of quality news journalism, public interest broadcast, idiosyncratic, occasionally oddball and beautifully brilliant TV for 40 years. Privatisation will provide us with yet another low budget 'tabloid' TV channel, driven by profit and without a care for genunine quality. Shame”
FionaMcDonald, Doctor, NHS, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 produces high quality independent programs. It is of a far higher quality than the vast majority of other channels. It, and its independence need to be protected.”
MichaelHare, Retired, Not applicable, on 14 Sep 2021
“It doesn't need a conspiracy theory to recognise that the current Conservative Party is determined to drive the national cultural debate further to the right. However far the political pendulum swings left they want to ensure that it is still right of the fulcrum. This is what the culture war is about and the destruction of Channel 4 is part of that process. We will be impoverished if Channel 4 is privatised.”
DannyLynch, Plumber, Fresh water, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 is the last bastion of credible journalism. We want it to stay and will fight till the end to achieve that.”
PaulAbrahamson, Programmer, UK Financial Institution, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 offers a vital service in its role as an independent news provider. Its programming is often relevant and interesting, and I believe it is crucial it remains in public ownership with its current independence.”
JackieBrook, Group Sales and Marketing Manager, Hill care, on 14 Sep 2021
“Privatisation, where has that genuinely worked?
It certainly shouldn't be on all our Channels and Channel 4 has been amazing in supplying well edited, interesting and informative programmes and news.
It would be a travesty to put it into the hands of an investor, who cares more about the shareholders than the viewers.”
PaulWoodcraft, Snr Clinical Nurse Specialist CBT, Retired, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 has taken the place of the BBC as an independent producer of Television & Films that are innovative & thought-provoking. Also, Channel 4 is fiercely independent in News Coverage, asking politicians of all persuasions at home & abroad tricky questions. Channel 4 covers many essential stories at home & abroad that are ignored by other media. The constraints of vested interest controlling them would reduce their ability to be one of the few unbiased & trustworthy broadcasters of News available to people in the UK. It would be a tragedy if channel 4 becoming a cash cow for a corporation, of which there are already a great many, rather than a vibrant non-profit organisation that pushes boundaries & asks difficult questions of all of us”
ClaireGilbert, Lawyer, Swllc, on 14 Sep 2021
“I am a great fan of the current channel 4 news and would hope that no changes would be made to its funding, remit or format following this consultation. It’s independence, breadth and quality stand out over all other tv news atm, I was very pleased to see how agile c4 was in getting the rights to show the US open recently. Documentaries & choice of 3rd party series such as Handmaiden are excellent. I wouldn’t like any changes to c4 as it is. More funding could be good for arts and news/politics/documentaries perhaps along the lines of some European channels, but no more advertising please.
It’s my most watched mainstream channel, otherwise I use bbc radio 4.”
R.Adler, Manager, UK Financial Institution, on 14 Sep 2021
“Ch4 provides a well received mixture of socially relevant output, with strong, independently edited news content and popular entertainment programming. At a time when there are serious, valid questions to be asked about the editorial independence of BBC it’s absolutely critical that Ch4 is retained as a publicly owned, independently edited content broadcaster. Sale of the station to a private commercially motivated owner risks changing Ch4’s identity and output content fundamentally and contrary to the public interest.”
JanetKirton, Retired GP, None, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 is now my go to channel for news . It covers stuff that other channels don’t touch or are to afraid to. It challenges were others accept. It is also by far my most watched channel for drama and documentaries. Leave it be.”
LenoreSimson, None, None, on 14 Sep 2021
“We need to look at how public service broadcasting is managed, Channel 4 has largely escaped the micromanagement of their news output, unlike the BBC by Government appointed Governors. However privatising Channel 4 will almost certainly mean a politically driven sale to a Tory party supporter, which threatens our democracy. We need to depoliticise not privatise our public service broadcasters and have independent bodies or cross party committees managing appointments to powerful positions within these organisations.”
RichardFirth, ICT training officer, Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 (like the BBC) provides an incredible range of content for users such as people with disabilities. This content also informs and educates 'mainstream' users.

No commercial channel offers anything like this content. For this reason Channel 4 should stay in public ownership.”
AnthonySutcliffe, Retired, None, on 14 Sep 2021
“Channel 4 has proven to be an excellent source of high quality programmes, minority sports and culture output, and superb documentary and news production.

I believe that to make changes to the current management and structure of the Channel and its operations would inevitably lead to a significant reduction in the quality of the output. The changes proposed would not improve the operations and output; they would inevitably result in an increase of material designed to offer greater profit avowed cost; and in greater process, eliminate the material for which Channel 4 has justifiably earned a high reputation.

It's clear that the proposals are politically motivated; and I hope that they are not implemented.”
KevinMitchell, None, None, on 14 Sep 2021
“Please leave ownership and format alone. It works very well and provides an alternative viewpoint from the increasingly ‘sanitised’ and ‘politically correct’ content of the BBC. There is a strong suspicion this proposed move is to ‘silence’ an increasingly vociferous opponent of the current government. Keep politics out of broadcasting.”
KennethBardsley, Retired, kenbarsystems, on 14 Sep 2021
“Hands OFF Channel 4. It is the ONLY tv outlet in the UK speaking truth to power at the moment.”

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