As the new year has kicked off, the debate around Channel 4’s privatisation will continue to lurk behind our TV screens.
Proponents of the move argue that in order to keep up with streaming giants like Netflix or Amazon Prime, Channel 4 needs immense investment to survive, let alone compete.
In turn, this would require a huge amount of borrowing from the taxpayer, which supporters say doesn’t make commercial sense for the government to facilitate.
Meanwhile, critics believe that an outright sale of the broadcaster would hit the production sector hard, and specifically indie companies who work extensively on originals shows, like It’s A Sin.
Former culture secretary Oliver Dowden sat firmly in favour of privatisation, recognising that The Great British Bake Off broadcaster could benefit from a change of ownership. He deemed the current Channel 4 model unsustainable for the level of growth needed for a successful commercial TV channel in the modern era.
Dowden told a Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee last year that the broadcaster could be privatised by 2024, and launched a consultation in July to prove it.
However, this is not the first time that a government minister has thrown the future of the channel into question: the existence of Channel 4 has been under regular scrutiny since John Major’s government in the mid 1990’s.
The current Government’s position is again in favour of private ownership for the channel, which it said would give the broadcaster “greater access to new strategic and investment opportunities”.
Dowden added in his accompanying statement: “Since its creation almost 40 years ago by a Conservative Government, Channel 4 has delivered on its remit, aims and objectives. But, in that time, the broadcasting landscape has changed beyond recognition, and continues to change apace.”
“The consultation therefore asks for views and evidence on what ownership model and remit will best support Channel 4 to thrive for another 40 years and beyond.”
Whilst he wasn’t in power to see the outcome, with Nadine Dorries replacing him in a cabinet reshuffle, the consultation received over 60,000 responses.
Claire Enders, analyst at Enders Analysis, praised the consultation: “Without the debate on privatisation, it would have been impossible for those 60,000 organisations to make their views known.”
She explained that by reopening discussion it was actually “strengthening the remit for Channel 4”, which could lead to a codification of its essential functions, like reinvesting back into talent. This could then be passed on to a buyer, whoever that may be.
Nevertheless, in many ways, the new culture secretary’s stance seems less certain.
She told the DCMS select committee in November that she was awaiting evaluation of the results before she made any decision about privatisation, which are expected this year.
Dorries emphasised at the committee meeting: “I know there is all this speculation about ‘the decision has been made’ and ‘they are going to privatise Channel 4’ but we are not.”
“We are evaluating the future of Channel 4 and whether it is a sustainable model.”Nadine Dorries
“A decision has not been taken. When we get to the point of possibly taking a decision, when we get to the point of considering all the evidence, then we can probably have this discussion. But at the moment I think it is right and proper we evaluate the future of a public service broadcaster”, she asserted.
Select committee member Damian Green praised this position, which stands in contrast to her predecessor, who gave the impression that privatisation was “not a case of whether but how”.
But, don’t be fooled. DCMS is far from taking a backseat and media battle shows no signs of cooling.
The committee has already declined to sign off the reappointment of board members twice in 2021: something that was previously an exception rather than the rule when it came to cultural bodies.
Recent reports have also suggested that Channel 4 has hired a team of bankers to build a resistance against any sale. Insiders told Sky News that wealth management firm Alvarium are helping with upcoming talks with shareholders and stakeholders about the company’s future.
So, as 2022 has kicked off, what has become resolutely clear is that discussions of privatisation are not going to go away any time soon.
Having regularly appeared on government agenda since the channel’s launch in 1982, the debate seems to pop up every time the government contemplates major changes in the broadcasting space.
As an area that has been unimaginably disrupted by the rise, and domination, of US streaming giants, it seems Channel 4 is gearing up for a bumpy ride.