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‘What’s this UK Channel Four?’ After 40 years, we might finally get an answer




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Prior to its launch as a new television channel in 1982, the UK’s Channel Four punningly asked: "what it was for". Back then, it was by no means obvious that three channels weren’t enough and why a fourth one was needed and could be successfully funded. After 40 years, the remit, the funding and the entire media landscape look very different. So as the UK government presses on with its plans to privatise the channel, it’s a good time to ask that question once again - writes Political Editor Nick Powell

The UK government’s plans to privatise Channel Four didn’t have the most auspicious of starts, with Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries wrongly claiming that it was tax-payer funded and later mysteriously referring to the successful privatisation of Channel Five, which no one else can remember ever being state-owned.

But that’s not to say that the future of Channel Four, with its unusual and privileged business model, should be off-limits for political and wider debate. Far from it.

For a start, it is in the unique position of being funded primarily by selling advertising, without being a truly commercial enterprise. This stems from the shake-up of the existing model in 1982, when the licence fee-funded BBC was still strictly non-commercial and the ITV companies made money from an advertising monopoly in return for hefty public service broadcasting commitments and a substantial levy on profits paid to the Treasury.

ITV’s advertising monopoly was preserved at the start of Channel Four. The companies sold its advertising and paid a levy to fund Channel Four, protecting it from running out of money before it had established itself. It was a lazy assumption that this was money that would otherwise have gone to ITV shareholders, as within a few short years ITV was spending less on programmes and after one final Treasury bonanza, paying less to the government as well.

When Channel Four started selling its own advertising, the safeguarding mechanism that was expected to see ITV topping up any shortfall went into reverse, with money flowing to the commercial companies for a while. Where Channel Four was different was that it did not make its own programmes but bought them from independent producers, creating a whole new sector of the broadcast industry in the process.

This was a slight of hand when it came to the idea that Channel Four was not for profit. There was profit to be made alright but it went to the indies, not to the channel. Today all channels (and streaming platforms) commission from independents, including both the BBC and ITV, who are both major buyers and major sellers in the marketplace.


So what now is this channel for? Keeping (some) independent production companies profitable really doesn’t cut it anymore in a mature market where any state intervention should surely be aimed at making it easier for new entrants.

The other answer has always been that Channel Four adds to media diversity, that it commissions shows that no other channel would or could. It’s an argument that took quite a hit when Channel Four outbid the BBC for the ‘Great British Bake Off’. Meanwhile, some of its best known original commissions have a distinct resemblance to some of the internet’s more dubious offerings.

After a shaky start, ‘Channel Four News’ has long been the flagship programme. There are certainly some in government who see privatisation as a way of making it a less well-funded and editorially distinct (they would say left-wing) news service. That would be a disreputable and wrong-headed motive.

Wrong-headed because no channel wishing to stand out and make money in today’s multi-media world is likely to succeed without a flagship news programme -and it’s a heck of a lot easier to keep one than to create one. ITV did come close during its unlamented ‘News at When?’ period but came to its commercial senses,

Channel Four News has always been made by ITN, also the only company that has ever made ITV’s network news. That makes complete sense when the BBC news behemoth is the true competition. Indeed, ITV ought to be the obvious answer to the question of who would buy Channel Four.

That would require at least two things. ITV’s board should realise that making programmes and running channels are what it and its people are good at. Its recently plunging share price speaks to investors’ horror at yet another company proudly announcing plans to take its eye off the ball and pursue some already fading alternative. Trying to become the next Netflix, when Netflix’s business model is in trouble, is up there with that time ITV bought Friends Reunited.

The other is that the government, through its guidance to the broadcasting regulator Ofcom, should ensure that a successful, commercially-funded public service alternative to the BBC should be a top priority. Channel Four’s privatisation is probably now inevitable but how it’s done -and why it’s done- are crucial to whether the broadcasting ecology is weakened or strengthened in the process.

In a developing digital world where online news platforms are overtaking traditional broadcasters as people’s news source of choice, there are those that are critical of Channel Four’s privileged position, and welcome the prospect of change.

EU Reporter’s founder and owner Colin Stevens said “I personally welcome the prospect of privatisation of Channel Four. I believe the UK government should support and properly fund one state broadcaster (the BBC). The rest of us, commercial channels and online platforms should stand or fall on our own creativity, business acumen, and audience appeal.  Channel Four has for too long had a privileged existence. We could all grow at pace if, like Channel Four, the taxpayer effectively underwrites our business.”

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