Channel 4 - As privatisation looms, is our creativity safe?

[This blog was originally posted on]

“A quirkily brave and occasionally brilliant broadcaster will be a profit centre”.

Last September, leaked plans outlined the government's hopes of privatising Channel 4 - currently publicly owned but funded by advertising revenue. 
Today, as the battle rages on between both sides of the debate, broadcasters worry about the channel's uncertain future.

Those in favour of privatisation, such as former CEO Michael Grade, extol the benefits of building ‘a media powerhouse’, and freedom from state control meaning greater opportunities. His argument is that resisting privatisation is resisting change, and that doubters ‘[fly] in the face of commercial logic’, by trying to stifle private interest. 

Other commentators like David Elstein cite the potential streamlining and cost efficiencies of a move towards the private arena. Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has pointed to the Ofcom-enformed public service remit as protection to a creative dilution. This remit,in place since 1982, 

stipulates the channel's commitment to diversity and innovation. 
But is this remit safe when the big bidders come calling?
Privatisation’s detractors would argue no. 

Channel 4's 1982 remit

Channel 4's 1982 remit

John McVay, chief of PACT, worries about a commercial owner spending less on ‘risky and innovative’ programming. Currently, Channel 4’s hybrid model means that the big commercial US imports and advertising revenue, pays for independent productions, news, 4Talent, and FilmFour. One notable success story was The Inbetweeners, which began on E4, and ultimately spawned two movies that made more than £70m at the UK box office. 

Would this creative ecosystem be endangered by the mooted sale? 

Will shareholders expecting a return will be less concerned with diversity, and more with the bottom line?

Wolf Hall' director Peter Kosminsky points to ITV (floated on the stock market in '91), as a case study. The slow decline in quality of that network sets a worrying precedent, even though similar quality assurances were made at the time.

ITV's Celebrity Love Island - diversity at it's best

ITV's Celebrity Love Island - diversity at it's best

So the challenge going forward seems a microcosm of an eternal struggle: art versus commerce. 

If the company is desperate to keep its stockholders happy and create a yearly profit, does this mean more Big Brother and less Channel 4 News? More Friends re-runs at the expense of independent productions and documentaries?

Channel 4’s looming fate mirrors the position of many creatives all around the UK. From TV to documentaries, film to promotional work, many desperately try to juggle the top-earning projects, while maintaining their creative identity. We will all watch the privatisation debate eagerly, with the hope for artistic diversity to stay alive and well in England.

TVAndrew LynchComment