June 25, 2021
The channel has brought groundbreaking diversity to our screens. It’s doubtful a profits-driven owner would do the same
Channel 4’s unique programming wouldn’t survive a sell-off | Dorothy Byrne
So, yet again the government is considering the privatisation of Channel 4, and this time it sounds like the threat is serious. What would British public service broadcasting gain and lose if this asset was sold off?Channel 4 was a brilliant creation of the Thatcher government. It is owned by the state but costs the taxpayer nothing, earning its revenues through advertising and some sponsorship. While it is run commercially, it makes no profit, channelling its revenues back into programmes.
When it came into being, nearly 40 years ago, broadcasters made their own programmes. Channel 4 was different. Even Channel 4 News is not actually made by Channel 4; rather, it is commissioned by the channel. As a result, the new station brought into being a raft of independent television companies that have formed a massively successful industry worth billions a year. All the hit programmes the channel has made are owned by the independent TV companies that make them. These companies sell those brands around the world, bringing significant revenue to the UK but not to Channel 4 itself. In a world of TV titans, Channel 4 is a minnow that does not own the rights to its own shows. So, on the face of it, selling it off to a big company that can invest makes some sense.But while other broadcasters do now commission significant proportions of their programmes from independent companies, Channel 4 remains the only broadcaster that commissions all its programmes, nurturing many smaller regional companies and ones owned by people from diverse backgrounds. It’s difficult to see why any outfit that bought the channel would want to do the same. The government could lay down all sorts of rules to protect the channel’s output and the independent sector, but over time I fear a major company would pressurise the government to reduce those undertakings.
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