There’s no doubt C4 needs to change – but that’s far more likely if it retains its public ownership

The support Broadcast has received since launching its Not 4 Sale campaign has been considerable. We’ve had backing from some of the sector’s most influential organisations – Bectu, Writers Guild, Directors UK and the NUJ – and many, many high-profile figures. Not too much unites Ruth Davidson and Steve McQueen, Edgar Wright and Kirstie Allsopp, Melvyn Bragg and Lord Sugar.

The bedrock of support has been the indie sector, but it has also been the source of some very reasonable queries about the thinking behind our stance.

From the outset, we have stated that we believe C4’s not-for-profit status underpins both its unique PSB content remit and its publisher/broadcaster model – and preserving all three is the core of the campaign.

That does not mean Broadcast is an unchallenging cheerleader for C4, and the conviction that privatisation would be bad for the industry and bad for audiences is not the same as believing that C4 does not need to change.

C4 has the opportunity to reimagine, reinvent and revitalise itself for the mid-21st century – but public ownership is integral to doing so.

A number of issues tend to crop up in conversations about how C4 should evolve, including its push into the nations and regions. It has embraced relocation culturally, and the opening of the Leeds headquarters next month will be the strongest symbol yet of C4’s commitments beyond the M25.

But the notion of two HQs was always something of a misnomer, and further ramping up its commitment to Leeds, in terms of having top execs or board members based there, or a far greater concentration of staff, is an option. C4 knows that acting as an agent for ‘levelling up’ could help change Tory views on privatisation, and a more radical approach might help make that case.

The question of C4’s remit is also in the ether. It has changed over the years, and even C4 supporters such as Claire Enders acknowledge it is now somewhat fuzzy. The remit is no longer interpreted largely through the requirement to deliver certain volumes of certain programme genres, but via an ethos and commitment to surface alternative viewpoints and unlikely subjects.

The cross-subsidy balancing act has always been tricky for C4 and many generations of programming teams have faced the conundrum of how many gameshows are needed in order to fund a run of Dispatches, or whether gaining viewers by poaching Bake Off or Taskmaster is justified by the expense of delivering Channel 4 News.

Within that, there is a sense that C4 needs to reconnect with its radical roots and take a few more risks. It still has many examples of shows that tackle tricky topics, and for which ratings are clearly a secondary concern – I was gripped by Story Films’ Taken: Hunting The Sex Traffickers, for example.

“Privatisation is a sure route to diluting C4 and giving the industry and audiences more of what they already have”

But perhaps too great a proportion of its output has edged towards the mainstream. It could be helped in rectifying this by its plan to unshackle itself from the linear schedule, and could challenge itself to go further. As diversity champion Marcus Ryder posited on a recent Broadcast/British Broadcasting Challenge roundtable, it is hard to imagine the C4 of the modern era hiring the contemporary equivalent of Darcus Howe and Tariq Ali.

That might sound downbeat, but let’s be clear: C4 still delivers a range of compelling, distinctive programming and performs a role in the industry that no other organisation can.

Chris Curtis

That doesn’t mean it can’t be improved, but those improvements are all but inconceivable if it is sold off. Privatisation is a sure route to diluting C4 and giving the industry and audiences more of what they already have.

As Proper Content’s David DeHaney eloquently puts it: “C4 is the primary terrestrial incubator of innovation.” It will surely lose that status if profit, shareholder value and return on investment become its new watchwords.

  • Chris Curtis is the editor in chief of Broadcast


Broadcast’sNot 4 Saleanti-privatisation campaign has attracted signatories from 160 indie bosses, along with a clutch of industry-wide organisations.

If you would like to join whether you are joining in a personal capacity or signing up your business, to enable Broadcast to highlight each area when publishing the results.

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