Speaking recently at a Select Committee of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Culture Minister Oliver Dowden (pictured below) confirmed that he is considering privatising Channel Four.
This is not news. The channel has been under the Tory party microscope for some considerable time, despite the fact that it is clearly fulfilling its original and established remit to produce “high quality and distinctive programming”. It has managed to do that throughout its existence, since its launch in 1982 into a UK TV landscape comprising only three terrestrial channels – BBC1, BBC2 and ITV.
John Nicolson, SNP member for Ochil and South Perthshire, quizzed Dowden on the reason for the review. “A programme like Unreported World, for instance, would be unlikely to be made by a privatised Channel Four – it just doesn’t get the viewing figures to attract the advertising”.
Although I agree with Nicolson’s sentiment, I assume (though I might be wrong) that his contention was that most advertisers seek high ratings. Actually, in my 41-year media planning and buying career in ad. agencies I found Channel Four to typically offer excellent value on a cost-efficiency basis, rather than simply high audience numbers. It was often invaluable when used in campaigns aimed at upscale audiences, but that didn’t necessarily equate with large total audience. TV buying decisions for upmarket clients are rarely made solely on the basis of gross audiences. Although it can attract a premium for some airtime, Channel Four is often used as a “cost reducer” because of its efficiency in reaching otherwise hard-to-reach demographics. This is purely a function of its often quirky programmimg, whether that be incisive reporting, daring drama, unusual documentary material or commissioned productions aimed at niche markets. It is very useful in adding audience coverage to a media campaign – in other words, reaching audiences that aren’t reached by other channels. But such successes are by-products of its ability to deliver on its core remit – high quality and distinctive programming.
Dowden replied: “I think the scale and pace of the evolution of the broadcasting model continues apace and I think it is important that we … consider the ownership model for Channel Four … The extent to which viewing habits are now dominated by video-on-demand – particularly post-pandemic – Netflix was not really a major player in the UK market five years ago. Now it is a hugely important player, for example in commissioning, etc.”
Market share – in terms of share of audience – has never been C4’s goal. Its licence doesn’t permit it to make its own programmes, but over the years it’s commissioned and broadcast a host of minority and/or controversial programmimg. In this respect it offers a genuine alternative to the other mainstream channels. Its choices of subject matter has often been highly controversial (and anti-Establishment) and it has an editorial stance that has frequently provoked the ire of the incumbent government, of whatever leaning.
Back in the day I was invited to one of its 1982 launch events and had the good fortune to have a brief conversation with its founding Chief Executive Jeremy Isaacs (now Sir Jeremy Isaacs). Seeking ‘inside track’ information for the regular opinion column I wrote for advertising trade rag Campaign, I persuaded him to estimate what kind of audience share he was anticipating, which he expected to settle down at around 12%. In fact C4’s share of audience has bobbed about over the years, eroded slowly by new entrants. The channel’s Top Ten programmes of all time (headed by Woman of Substance in 1985) all achieved audiences over 10 million (source: BARB).
Originally funded by ad. sales handled by the ITV stations, who were permitted to sell ads. on it in their own regions, since 1990 it has been self-supporting and indeed the original single channel has spawned many offshoots, including Film4, E4 and More 4, together with a free video-on-demand service called All 4.
It seems that one of the penalties imposed on the channel for its asking searching questions of government ministers is to be accused of bias and for them to refuse to be interviewed. This seems at one and the same time to be anti-democratic and a great insult to the Channel Four team, including its two star interview/presenters Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru-Murthy.
Furthermore the main reason given by Dowden for undertaking the review of the Channel’s funding model seems particularly flimsy, particularly when you consider that its audience performance both pre- and during the pandemic has been relatively stable, if not positive.
And, more to the point, its value to the nation is its complete independence from influences that might skew its programming on the basis of profit-making. Channel Four takes risks – long may that continue!