Should adland fear or welcome the privatisation of Channel 4?

Clockwise from top left: Abraham, Biggam, McGowan, Pemsel, Williams
Clockwise from top left: Abraham, Biggam, McGowan, Pemsel, Williams

Government is reported to be considering a sale of the broadcaster sooner than expected.

State-owned, commercially-funded Channel 4 has been a potential candidate for privatisation for years.

David Abraham, its chief executive from 2010 to 2017, headed off the threat of a sale around the time of the Brexit vote, arguing that Channel 4 played an important role in the UK's media ecology because of its investment in the independent TV production sector and commitment to diverse, British-made programming.

But privatisation is back on the cards as Boris Johnson’s Conservative administration appears to have a more ideological view about the merits of a sale and the potential to bring in a windfall for the Treasury, after running up big debts to prop up the UK economy during the pandemic.

The Times recently reported that the government has sounded out investment bankers about a potential sale process amid a frenzy of global deal-making, including the Warner Media-Discovery merger.

Allies of Channel 4, which brings in about £1bn a year in ad sales, maintain that the broadcaster remains in good health and is sustainable despite the rise of streaming.

The TV ad market has bounced back this year and the annual report, which is set to be published later this month, is expected to show it has built up a large cash surplus.

These allies point to the “cultural benefit” that a not-for-profit Channel 4 delivers and suggest that a move to a for-profit company would affect media plurality and the independent TV production sector.

“There are things that you wouldn’t do if you were a profit-maximising company,” one source says.

Still, advertisers are not known for their sentimentality and may welcome more shows such as The Great British Bake Off and Googlebox that deliver large audiences.

So should adland fear or welcome the privatisation of Channel 4?

David Abraham

Chief executive and co-founder, Wonderhood Studios; former chief executive, Channel 4

For decades British creative and media agencies have created opportunities and innovated with Channel 4 through successive shifts in taste and consumption patterns, most recently in terms of connected viewing. Selling Channel 4 off now would make an imperceptible contribution to reducing the national debt but would represent a very significant risk to the UK creative industries. Thousands of independent TV and film producers, directors and craftspeople across the UK work with Channel 4 – in large part because it is the only not-for profit commercial public service broadcaster in the country. This means it can take more creative risks across many more genres and provide advertisers with a genuine cultural alternative which appeals to younger, more progressive and diverse parts of Britain. The fact that Channel 4 has just weathered the biggest economic crisis in modern history suggests that ideology remains a bigger driver of this most recent debate than the preservation of public value.

Jenny Biggam

Founding partner, the7stars

There is a lot of love for Channel 4 in the industry. The channel has clear differentiation and a clearly defined vision to create change through entertainment, so I think any change in ownership will be met with a combination of scepticism and excitement. With deeper pockets, Channel 4 might benefit from the freedom to double down on its investment in edgy, exciting and diverse content – good news for viewers and advertisers. 

In the past, public-service broadcasting has been the brake against a race to the bottom across the broadcasting sector, by virtue of tighter control on remits coupled with an absence of shareholder pressure. Channel 4’s distinctiveness and its ability to attract younger, harder to reach consumers is worth protecting and we all need a future of quality programming. Its commitment to diverse, local and independent producers is equally important to the industry as a whole.

Any new owner would need to invest in Channel 4’s core values and its well-loved and unique broadcasting style. The whole industry is gunning for it to succeed and a commercial boost from a committed investor could be positive but only if the broadcaster is able to keep its sharp edges.

David Pemsel

Global chief executive, ScienceMagic Inc; former marketing director, ITV

In 1979 Jeremy Isaacs, C4’s first CEO said in his Mactaggart speech: “We want a fourth channel that caters for substantial minorities presently neglected, that everyone will watch some of the time and no-one all the time, we want a fourth channel that will, somehow be different.” These words still resonate 42 years later and are not the mantra of a privatised entity. At a time when public-service broadcasting battles for our cultural share of mind against the deep-pocketed streaming platforms, Channel 4 needs to remain "independently different" to serve both audiences and the advertisers who support and funds its programming.

Vicki McGowan

Diversity media consultant, DECA

Channel 4’s public-service mandate means it must be innovative, stimulate public debate, reflect the UK’s cultural diversity, nurture new talent and champion alternative points of view. This has resulted in making Channel 4 extremely popular with young and minority audiences. Five years ago there were controversial plans for a broadcasting privatisation. They were thoroughly examined and found to be wanting in almost every respect. Sadly, the motivation now seems to come from the Treasury’s attempt to reduce the pandemic debt.

A new American media owner may use its own programming whereas, at present, Channel 4 is required to commission its programmes from the independent sector. The broadcasting and cultural deficit would be massive if this British media asset should fall into American or international hands. Channel 4 has consistently played a central role in shaping our cultural life and should remain in public hands. There is no reason to doubt that Channel 4 is perfectly sustainable in its present form, and for the foreseeable future.

Kate Williams

Head of diversity and inclusion, Publicis Groupe UK

For nearly 40 years, Channel 4 has championed difference and stimulated debate. Its programming has not only brought unseen stories to our screens allowing BIPOC, queer, disabled people and other communities to see themselves represented but it has also influenced the national conversation on a range of important issues. Its Paralympic coverage is just one of countless examples.

Now that we see so much more inclusive programming across other platforms, it’s easy to take this level of narrative diversity for granted. We would do well to remember that Channel 4’s public-service remit has been the key to its groundbreaking programming, which has helped bring the development of narrative diversity to the mainstream. Adland should not fear privatisation of Channel 4 per se, but we should consider the motives behind any privatisation and the possibility that the UK could lose a distinctive, boundary-breaking and progressive broadcaster.


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