Britain’s whole TV ecology is at risk as the government kicks off its push for privatisation

Here we go again. It would be easy to be cynical about another attempt to privatise Channel 4, if the prospect didn’t feel quite so real, or quite so imminent.

One moment Alex Mahon and Charles Gurassa were presenting 2020 results showing the broadcaster was remarkedly resilient in the face of the Covid-19 advertising crisis, the next the government formally began proceedings to sell it off. Its rationale? That C4 is not sustainable in the long term under its current model.

It will be interesting to see what evidence it delivers for that view. The market is changing quickly around it, but C4 (and all the PSBs) are changing too. Advertising is migrating away from linear to digital, and C4 is following suit. Unless you believe all TV in the future will be via ad-free subscriptions, where is the problem?

The UK already has two commercial PSBs that are run for profit, in the shape of ITV and Viacom-owned Channel 5. Both do sterling work, but it is not clear how a third would benefit viewers or the industry. Private investment at C4 could well mean more content, as the government believes, but it would likely mean more of the same.

It is because C4 is not run for profit that it plays such an important part in the TV ecology. I could extol the importance of it not owning in-house production, flag up its commitment to underrepresented voices or tackling subjects the commercial sector would not, or highlight the value it has returned to the indie sector over 40 years – but I suspect I would be preaching to the converted. 

Broadcast readers already know this – so it’s time to let the government know, too.

“The consultation will be held over the summer and is expected to be framed provocatively – asking for views on the government’s preferred option of privatisation”

Alarmingly, the Tories’ actions suggest the future of C4 could be a fait accompli. Last time around, the debate about C4’s status rumbled on for more than 18 months, but there was never a formal consultation. This time, the debate is starting with one.

That consultation will be held over the summer, and Broadcast understands it will be framed provocatively – asking for views on the government’s preferred option of privatisation, rather than for more general perspectives on what the broadcaster’s future should hold.

The government has committed to retaining some form of remit for C4, but the stronger or more explicit that is, the less valuable and attractive the broadcaster will be as an asset. And if you allow it to own IP, launch in-house production or expand internationally, you can only do so at the expense of the indie sector. Attempting to stablise a British broadcaster by undermining British production seems like an odd step.

Initial soundings suggest there is consensus that privatisation would be detrimental to the industry, and that is why Broadcast will shortly reach out to garner views and present them as clearly and coherently as possible. Now is the time to have your say.

This is not about being reactionary, or clinging to the status quo. If there are coherent financial or data-led arguments in favour of privatisation, then the government or interested parties should make them. But if the argument is ideological – that Britain should not have a second publicly owned broadcaster – then that should be the debate, rather than talk of sustainability.

C4 is not perfect and it must constantly evolve. Perhaps its push into the nations and regions could be accelerated, perhaps its commitment to small producers and risk-taking could be strengthened.

Chris Curtis

But whether you believe the broadcaster is firing on all cylinders, spluttering along, or somewhere in between, its ethos has always been integral to making British television distinctive. Its commitment to new titles and fresh thinking has benefited viewers and our production sector for almost four decades – and it is now at risk.

  • Chris Curtis is the editor in chief of Broadcast