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Why Channel 4 must not be privatised: advertisers don’t want a Sky/ITV duopoly

Why Channel 4 must not be privatised: advertisers don’t want a Sky/ITV duopoly


Creating a TV market duopoly will weaken advertiser and agencies’ trading stances and therefore the output of our marketing efforts, writes BT’s media manager. Please note this article does not reflect the views of BT.

It is so important that the privatisation of Channel 4 doesn’t happen.

Turning Channel 4 into a profit machine will not only weaken its programming output and wider offering but will also mean a heavy step backwards in terms of diversity, inclusion, and support for all sections of society that together make this country a fascinating place to live.

In addition to that, privatising Channel 4 will make our lives as marketers harder, and our campaigns less effective.

Channel 4 has been innovative with programming since day one. The Big Breakfast strayed away from the stale news and magazine style boredom-fest of morning TV and brought fun and silliness to the start of our days.

It introduced the reality TV phenomena that was Big Brother, which spanned two decades and spawned a new breed of celebrity – maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but the viewing figures seemed to say positive things. It boldly brought wisely-chosen US imports to our screens from Thirty Something and Northern Exposure back in the day, followed by the likes of ER, Friends and many more.

Ground-breaking comedy and satire appeared on our screens, a welcome change with the UK having been fed on a diet mainly consisting of dull sitcoms, Jim Davidson, Russ Abbott and the like in the 1980s.

Channel 4 introduced the public to The Comic Strip Presents, Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out and Saturday Night Live, progressing to the likes of South Park, The Simpsons and more recently the multi-award-winning Taskmaster.

It has always shown incredibly strong and challenging documentaries, with Dispatches at the front of their offering for many years. It has won many awards for their documentaries, second perhaps only to the BBC’s Panorama for producing ground-breaking studies and exposés.

As recently as last month it aired a difficult to watch but heavily researched and well produced programme revealing the manipulative tactics practised on contestants of the Jeremy Kyle show, leading to suicides and ruined livelihoods. A tough but gripping watch.

Channel 4 is a bastion for inclusivity. It’s not exaggerating to say hardly anyone watched the Paralympics until Channel 4 changed the game completely. In 2012, millions tuned into the games and Channel 4 has continued to show it since. In 1999 it threw the brilliant Queer As Folk at our screens, showing the first proper openly gay sex scenes on British TV, upsetting Sun and Daily Mail readers in the process.

Viewers of the more recent It’s A Sin will understand what a different world it was before the turn of the century, where a lack of acceptance of homosexuality was the norm.

Meanwhile, The Undatables was a heart-warming programme that helped people with various disabilities or perceived social stigmas find love. The Last Leg is just about the most inclusive programme you can get on TV – although it has increased, inclusivity is not a new thing for Channel 4. In 1989 it introduced the show Desmond’s which ran for many years, the first ever UK sitcom with an all-Black cast.

The station has educated, shocked, innovated and challenged in the name of diversity and inclusion for years. All of this is fundamentally down to their remit. Privatise Channel 4 and the remit is gone, as is all the innovation that comes with it. We can’t let this happen.

Channel 4 has held comedy galas for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital and raised millions for Cancer Research with their Stand Up to Cancer programming and the appeals within it.

Searching “Channel 4 black inclusion” on Google, the first listed question in “People Also Ask” is this: “Why is there Black People on Channel 4?”; the second asks “Why is everyone Black on the big breakfast?”

This shows precisely why we need Channel 4 to stay as it is. Large parts of society are still not where they need to be in terms of attitudes on race, sexuality, and all other aspects of inclusion. Removing Channel 4 will help push this country backwards, further distancing it from where it needs to be, pushing us as Brexit did, more towards a popular psyche centred around ignorance and selfish greed than a brighter future.

Enriching our screens

Channel 4 introduced and stuck by a detailed Inclusion and Diversity strategy, spanning not just programming, but its workforce and also in how they lead the industry through events, initiatives, supporting talent and enabling social access. They launched Black to Front, to showcase and champion under-represented audiences and communities, and also have an internal Creative Diversity Team, in order to assure accurate representation on screen and behind the cameras.

If you search Channel 4 on Thinkbox, for of the top six matches cover case studies or articles covering D&I issues.

It doesn’t stop at programming or staffing, as Channel 4 has taken this agenda into their ad breaks too, with their own promotional campaign celebrating the “weirdness” of our country with a great TV spot.

Since 2016 it has awarded £1m in advertising each year to advertisers that have championed various D&I topics in their Diversity in Advertising Award. I’m sure most of you have seen them, if not, check out these great offerings from Maltesers, Lloyds Bank, The RAF, Starbucks, EA Sports, and TENA. These fantastic and creative ads cover disability, mental health, inclusion for women, transphobia, Asian representation and ageism respectively. Actually, check them out again anyway, they’re all brilliant.

Two of the newest stations on our TV screens are GB News and, from Monday, Rupert Murdoch’s Talk TV. Across them we can hear the opinions of Nigel Farage, Piers Morgan, Tom Newton Dunn, Jeremy Kyle and, bizarrely, Sharon Osbourne. One could easily argue that for the sake of balance, the likes of Channel 4 need to remain.

Privatisation would make TV advertising worse for ITV and Sky

As mentioned earlier, Channel 4 is key to advertisers, too, for several reasons. If privatised, it would most likely be bought by either ITV or Sky. This would reduce levels of competition, creating a duopoly that will weaken advertiser and agencies’ trading stances and therefore the output of our marketing efforts.

Any buyer outside of ITV and Sky would have to push so hard for market share and profit against these giants, that would be very likely its programming, viewing figures and audience profile, will suffer.

The diversity of Channel 4’s offering isn’t there to feed some kind of woke or “snowflake” zeitgeist need that the likes of Farage and Morgan condemn and mock. It fundamentally fulfils their remit to be inclusive, innovative, inspirational and diverse.

The consistent delivery of this remit means as advertisers we hit a wider audience, more reflective of the country as a whole and gain further reach with the inclusion of Channel 4 in our campaigns.

The fact that Channel 4 has to offer a wider range of programming, to a mix of audiences, with a lot of it being of high quality, means the station still reaches an impressive percentage of ‘light’ TV viewers – those that are harder to reach via Channel 4’s competitors. These light viewers are by nature more affluent and likely to bring advertisers a higher lifetime value as customers.

All 4 is the most watched broadcaster on-demand (BVOD) service available. Diluting the content available will send many of those light viewers off to Amazon Prime, Netflix and Disney Plus, where we can’t advertise to them in the traditional way (or at all).

Channel 4 has combined forces with ITV and Sky over the last few years, to host the Big TV Festival, with industry leading speakers to introduce young media folk to the TV industry. Likewise, they worked with the other two industry behemoths on promoting healthy eating and exercise for kids.

In 2020, they teamed up with Nationwide to campaign against online hate, showing the abuse people receive with a “hate log”, to emphasise the horrendous nature of what people have to face.

Further to this, BT were among the supporters when Channel 4 asked advertisers to make audio description adverts to raise awareness and show how hearing impaired viewers watch TV, and broadcast them in two exclusive ad breaks. In the past they have also aired a fully signed ad break.

So, as well as bringing advertisers a competitive edge in the marketplace, they are providing incremental reach of key viewing demographics and platforms through which brands can display their own credibility in areas that are rightly becoming increasingly important.

Getting rid of this will mean viewers and advertisers alike will suffer, with a profit-motivated company running the station without a detailed remit for innovation, inclusion, and diversity.

Culturally it will be a step back for this country, as viewing figures, cheap wins and poor US acquisitions will become king, diluting the culture Channel 4 have helped contribute to over the last 4 decades.

The advertisers’ trade body ISBA, for which I sit on their TV and Video Steering Panel, said of Channel 4 privatisation:

“ISBA is very disappointed with the decision by the Government to proceed with plans to privatise Channel 4: “ At present, there are three TV sales houses – owned by Channel 4, ITV, and Sky – involved in the buying and selling of advertising space. Were these to be consolidated, it would create undue dominance in the TV advertising market and reduce competition. For the market to be effective for both advertisers and consumers there needs to be competition.”

If, having read this, you believe like I do that Channel 4 needs to stay as it is, please take the tiny amount of time needed to sign this petition.

Simon White is media manager at BT, working on consumer and brand activity across all media. He was previously an account director at media agency VCCP Media.

John Billett, CEO, JBGB Events, on 15 Jul 2022
“Simon White from BT argues that Channel 4 has to be retained as a state property to be protected from Privatisation whilst he operates in the data and Comms business regulated by legislation but wholly in the private sector. He can’t have it both ways”

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