The government’s been knocking on the doors of the country’s cultural institutions for the last few years, and it seems it’s Channel 4’s turn for a visit. They are currently considering privatising the channel which has been publicly owned since its launch under the Thatcher government in 1982. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden says that it is because it would allow the channel to escape the ties of public ownership “to access new capital, create strategic partnerships, and reach international markets,” whereas others may suggest a case of ideological revenge on the government’s part for seemingly anti-Tory content. Whatever the reason though, it is a terrible idea.
Channel 4’s ethos and business model are probably the most positive in television. It does not aim to make a profit, instead ploughing the money from its advertising revenue back into making new shows. This allows it to fulfil its remit to create innovative, diverse, and distinctive programming, much of which, particularly its documentaries and investigative journalism, would likely not be made was the channel run for profit. It also means that it is not costing the taxpayer money, as it receives no funds from the government. Channel 4’s programming is edgy, different, and unique in UK television. Although the government claim that they would maintain a similar remit if the privatisation were to go ahead, they have not committed to leaving it unchanged and realistically the more restrictive the remit, the less attractive the channel would be to prospective buyers.
One of the prime beneficiaries of this non-for-profit model is Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympic Games. This year they have broadcast around 300 hours of the 2020 games in Tokyo, a vital, world-beating commitment. For comparison, NBC in the US offered around 135 hours of televised coverage on a separate sports channel, whilst Ireland’s RTÉ offered around 52 hours. The sort of coverage Channel 4 supplies for the games is crucial for encouraging them to be seen on an equal footing with the Olympics as if people cannot watch the games for themselves, how are they meant to appreciate their importance? It is a vital service, but one which Channel 4’s programme director Ian Katz has suggested could diminish would the channel to be privatised, the inevitable drive for profit reducing the incentive to invest in such public interest programming. It would surely be a disaster for the Paralympics in Britain were this to happen.
Broadening out to other programming, one of the other key benefits of Channel 4 is its role in the British television economy of supporting ‘indie’ producers across the country. Since Channel 4 is not currently allowed to produce its own content, it has to rely on more than 300 external production companies to create its output. The government has said that these producers have nothing to worry about and would benefit from the additional capital of a private owner. However, many of them are worried, with Alan Clements, managing director of Two Rivers Media telling the Financial Times that there was a danger of “a wave of companies folding” were the proposals to go ahead. The government may say they would protect the smaller production companies, but ultimately a privatised Channel 4 would be able to produce programmes in-house, reducing the need for the ‘indie’ producers.
Ultimately what the government appears to be trying to do with Channel 4 is mend something which doesn’t need to be fixed. The broadcaster currently makes unique, innovative programming to fulfil its remit with the funds it has. At best privatisation is unnecessary, and at worst it could be catastrophic.