What does the future hold for Channel 4 now?
Stephen Arnell offers his take on Channel 4 avoiding privatisation and what it could spell for broadcaster-owned content.
After months of frenzied speculation about the fate of the broadcaster, the Sunak administration has bitten the bullet and abandoned former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ spectacularly misjudged privatisation proposal.
A sigh of relief all round, except those parties (both domestic and abroad) who had an eye on acquiring the network – likely at a recession-occasioned knockdown price.
Plus of course, Dorries, who predictably went into one of her all-too familiar tiresome Twitter tirades:
There has been praise in some quarters for C4’s Alex Mahon and Ian Katz in their fight against privatisation.
Without returning to my previous themes regarding the duo, I will say that they’ve been incredibly lucky in dodging this particular bullet. Without the chaos of the Tory Government in 2022, C4 would almost certainly be facing privatisation.
Instead of pre-empting any move to a sale with innovative plans, they have consistently been reactive, rather than proactive (see May 2022’s belated 4: The Next Episode – Channel 4’s future vision), whilst content director Katz’s performative stunts (such as the melting ice sculpture during the 2019 general election campaign) provided the broadcaster’s right-wing critics with both ammunition and motive.
Alex Mahon’s comments this week appear to put a post-facto gloss on C4’s masterful inaction regarding privatisation. Speaking to Variety, she claimed that “rather than launching its own anti-privatisation campaign from the get-go, Channel 4 allowed the industry to speak on its behalf before wading in with public responses”.
C4 hasn’t exactly been let off the hook with the Government’s about-face either.
The most controversial part of Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan’s decision to halt auctioning the broadcaster is to allow C4 to produce shows in-house, giving them for the first time, “the flexibility to make some of its own content.”
This opens a potential can of worms regarding C4’s remit as a publisher-broadcaster.
Questions will include:
- 1) Will C4 have to produce its own programming?
- 2) In which case, will there be quotas for independent production companies, who will inevitably have less opportunities with a smaller slice of the C4 commissioning budget?
- 3) What genres will ‘C4 Productions’ cover?
- 4) What infrastructure/staffing will be needed?
- 5) Who will lead the production arm – and how much will they be paid?
- 6) Where will C4 Productions be based?
Some former C4 executives and other industry veterans will no doubt be salivating at the prospect of cushy gigs commissioning prestige drama/comedy for the broadcaster.
As long as any HQ is based in central London of course…
Still, the idea of C4 Productions is better than handing wads of cash over to the likes of millionaires David Coulthard and Sacha Baron Cohen for stakes in their production companies, as has previously occurred at the network.
And, bearing in mind reports of bullying and abusive behaviour on some independent productions (Escape to the Chateau, Gogglebox, Ant Middleton, further back: McCririck and Chris Evans), a C4-owned entity should at least be able to lead the way in enforcing the highest on-set standards and keep its own house in-order.
The threat of a move outside the capital for C4’s head office will naturally see some winnowing of executive ‘talent’, unless of course they’re allowed the ‘get out’ of remote working for much of the time, excepting a begrudging weekly team meeting at the new Gateshead nerve centre.
I anticipate senior staff to depart in fairly short order, now that they can claim largely unearned personal success in their campaign against a sell-off.
As neither Mahon nor Katz are known for their low opinions of themselves, expect a victory lap of some sort now the news has been officially confirmed.
This could be the chance for a new team to revive the creative verve of C4’s early years, with a renewed emphasis on innovation, challenging orthodoxy, and genuine diversity.
Hopefully, it also means a not-so-sad farewell to torrid fare such as My Massive C**k, Naked Attraction, Katie Price’s Mucky Mansion, The British Tribe Next Door, Jimmy Carr Destroys Art, Gay Pets, as well as poached Bake Off, Taskmaster and the revived Changing Rooms.
Stephen Arnell began his career at the BBC, moving to ITV where he launched and managed digital channels. He continues to consult for streamers and broadcasters on editorial strategy. He currently writes for The Spectator, The Independent, and The Guardian on film, TV and cultural issues. He is also a writer/producer (including Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime for Sky Arts) and novelist.