Why Channel 4 shouldn’t be privatized
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Channel 4 is unique as a public channel that finances itself through advertising. She is committed to creativity and risk taking in cinema, fiction, comedy, documentaries and current affairs.
The UK government has conducted a “consultation” on the privatization of the channel – by selling it. The preamble of the document praises the achievements of the channel and suggests that its specificity be protected through privatization. But this particular gift horse has very sharp teeth.
What is the case with the market? Commercial television is already well served in Great Britain. ITV has six channels. Channel 5 is aimed at the same viewers. They all compete with C4 for publicity. Hundreds of chains online are recycling American-style fodder and old movies to do the same. The big subscription chains suck viewers like giant trawlers with three-mile nets.
This competition is the justification for a change of owner. However, Channel 4 is in poor financial health. It has a record surplus of £ 74million, announced in June. If privatized, it would go to shareholders instead of being seen on screen – currently its profits are recycled into independent productions. In this fiscal year, revenues are expected to exceed £ 1 billion for the first time thanks to increases in digital services, which now account for more than a fifth.
The government is right about the uncertainty in the market. But if C4 is sold – the government’s “preferred option” – its new owners will be motivated by demand for dividends from shareholders to make it more populist. However, this is limited by the current mandate which forces the chain to innovate and distinguish itself. To attract buyers, the government is considering “modernizing” the mandate. Risk taking will be the first victim.
So if there is no business need or consumer demand, what is the real motive behind the current threat to the channel? You don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to see it. This government is even more sensitive to criticism than its predecessors of all stripes. Privatization is one way to get out of the game.
This is no small adjustment – in the name of making sure the channel is “future-ready”, it will erase the past 40 years’ commitment to providing programming not available on other channels. It will also nibble its news production, a major source of thorns on the side of successive governments. Note the refusal of Boris Johnson to appear on Channel News 4 during the election and since to avoid difficult questions (as he refused the BBC Today program and Newsnight and other direct interviewers). More populist and less impactful news and current affairs will erode into “infotainment” – Dutch elm disease serious and innovative programming.
Yet Channel 4 was a conservative creation. Its unique structure, when it was launched in 1982, was based on the formula of public service risk-taking subscribed by advertising, first sold on its behalf by ITV: it was a brilliant creation of the first Minister Margaret Thatcher and Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw. As an independent filmmaker and original board member, I was among those who were delighted to be encouraged to be original.
Ensuring a sufficient share of independently produced content on C4 (and then on the BBC) created the thriving independent sector we have today in the UK. But it was about finding new talent and serving new audiences, covering neglected areas of society – not prudence. If a giant like Amazon takes over the channel, all but the biggest independents will go to the wall.
C4 is not perfect. It researched ratings like other commercial channels: in the 1990s, its managing director Michael Grade had the channel sell its own advertising, and since then Channel 4 has devoted a great deal of time and effort. ” energy to strengthen its audience with programs such as Big Brother and The Great British Cake. This strategy carries risks: the more commercially successful it is, the less justification there is to maintain public ownership.
But C4 remains innovative and distinctive compared to other terrestrial broadcasters. Last week he showed Black at the front – one day and one night devoted to programs and advertisements featuring blacks. The next day, he cleared the Saturday night schedule to show the US Open tennis final. Amazon made the Earth pay the rights. The channel broadcast it without advertising. It is public service broadcasting. The mandate has been eroded by the pressure to win viewers, but it is not yet completely destroyed. Privatization would be the final blow.
The so-called “consultation” on privatization ended on Tuesday. But the government had already rejected new board candidates unless they supported privatization, so there is little doubt about the outcome. The whole exercise is a cynical masquerade. The channel needs protection – from its “protectors” in government.