When Thatcher’s government set up Channel 4 back in 1982 as the boisterous youth-focused challenger to the BBC behemoth, it was a radical shake-up of Britain’s fusty broadcasting landscape. Now, almost four decades later, that same landscape is unrecognisable, its skyline dominated by the giants of the internet and streaming age.
It’s in this context that the government plans to consult on the potential sale of Channel 4 – a move culture secretary Oliver Dowden has insisted will guarantee the broadcaster “thrives for another 40 years”, with a flood of private investment opening the door for more content and more jobs.
There is, it must be said, some sense in this decision. As the streaming wars continue to escalate, there are valid questions over whether Britain needs two publicly-owned, traditional TV channels. Plus, soaring demand for film and TV content has fuelled a frenzy of media deals, meaning a sale could be lucrative for the government at a time when the coffers desperately need refilling.
But despite ministers’ cool assurances that privatisation is the best path for Channel 4, it’s far from clear that a sale would really guarantee future successes like It’s A Sin and The Great British Bake Off. In fact, it could even damage the UK’s thriving production scene.
First, as the broadcaster’s annual report revealed this week, its finances are in rude health. Despite the impact of the pandemic, Channel 4 booked a record annual surplus in 2020 and is on track to pull in revenue of more than £1bn this year for the first time ever. Of course, the broadcaster’s long-term success relies on a shift away from traditional TV advertising and towards its digital platform – a policy it is pursuing with vigour. But any suggestion that the company is in dire financial straits is belied by the numbers.
What’s more, the government seems to be overlooking the impact of privatisation on the UK’s wider broadcasting landscape. Channel 4 does not exist in a bubble – in fact, there’s no broadcaster more intrinsically tied to the country’s production scene. Current rules mean the channel does not have its own production facilities. Instead, it reinvest profits into commissioning programmes from independent producers. Any move to sell Channel 4 would undoubtedly require changes to this remit, and it’s far from guaranteed that a buyer would be so altruistic in its approach to programming.
This is why the UK production sector has reacted with such anger. John McVay, chief executive of industry body Pact, argues that the government’s thesis that bigger is always better is an “archaic concept from an analogue past”, while Sir David Attenborough and Armando Iannucci are among the stars to lash out at the proposals.
The question, then, is what the government is actually hoping to achieve through a sale. Pandemic aside, the UK’s production sector is enjoying a boom, with a spate of new film studios in the pipeline to feed surging demand for new material. The coming years provide an opportunity for Britain to style itself as a production hub, yet privatising Channel 4 risks removing one of the key architects of this makeover.
Repeated Tory criticism of Channel 4 has sparked suspicions that a sale could, at least in part, be politically-motivated, with ministers plotting their revenge on the broadcaster’s left-leaning coverage. If this is the case, the government should be careful what it wishes for. Dowden has claimed his plans will help level up Britain’s screens, but by selling off one of the industry’s major players he risks pulling the plug altogether.