The UK Government’s Minister for Media and Data, John Whittingdale, waged battle with UK TV professionals over the future of Channel 4 at this year’s Closing Debate at the Edinburgh TV Festival.
Reiterating his previous explanations for wanting the channel to be sold, Whittingdale referred to the changing TV market and the squeeze of advertising revenue, meaning Channel 4 could not be sustained in its present business model.
But he went further, intimating that the sale could actually protect some of the values fans of Channel 4 in its current form hold dear, and even help protect small independent producers, saying:
“Channel 4 has always been a combination of very commercial content balanced with extremely distinctive, more edgy content. The brand is one of the attractions, and that will be preserved by the remit. We’re going to make it clear that the remit is there and will stay.”
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Whittingdale pointed out that, as larger companies had taken over the sector since Channel 4 was launched, this could be a good time to taken account of smaller companies and “to support and build up start-ups – change the remit so it’s more targeted on those”.
James Graham, the writer of well-received political drama Brexit: The Uncivil War which aired on Channel 4, pointed out how much British talent has been championed by the broadcaster.
He said: “An international global streaming service might not have commissioned or broadcast that show. Channel 4 is mischievous and provocative, and I speak as a voice that has been nurtured and supported [by it]. The value of a PSB that doesn’t require immediate success or proof of concept is that you get to incubate and train talent you give them time to nurture, find their voice.”
By way of example, he mentioned multiple award winning actress and writer Michaela Coel, who first broke through with her Channel 4 show Chewing Gum.
Sanjay Singhal, TV producer and chief executive of Voltage TV asked how the values of Channel 4 – what former BBC and C4 boss Mark Thompson years ago called “do it first, make trouble, inspire change” – could possibly be upheld by a commercial broadcaster seeking to sell programmes, particularly overseas, and make money.
He mused: “Ok, they’ll keep more rights. They’ll say, ‘We funnel much more of our programming into in our in-house capability.’ Who’s going to lose out? The indie sector.
“The argument being made is that we want to do what Channel 4 is doing, but we want to introduce a big profit motive for the companies who are going to come in and buy it, and and the two things stand in contradiction.”
Whittingdale responded that everything important to Channel 4 – including production outside London, ring-fencing of investment and editorial independence in News and Current Affairs – could be protected in any sale by the regulations of the accompanying remit.
Ofcom’s Group Director, Content and Media Policy, Kevin Backhurst weaved a diplomatic middle ground, praising the British creative and talent eco-system of which Channel 4 has been such a part, while supporting Whittingdale’s argument that frameworks could be put in place to protect such a remit, saying: “We can certainly put a framework around any broadcaster to make sure it delivers what’s set out.”
Singhal was not convinced, adding: “John Whittinghdale says Channel 4 is not sustainable but 25 years ago, John, you put your hand up and said that because Channel 4 was making so much money that was the reason it should be privatised.
“If it’s really successful, privatise it, if it’s not, privatise it. You have an answer and you’re retro-fitting the problem you’re trying to solve. You have an agenda and an end point, and you’ve had it for 25 years, and it’s a punishment beating for the creative industry in this country.
“I don’t have confidence that this is a government that believes fundamentally in public service broadcasting. These are all things that are hard to write into a remit. These things are very hard to replace once they have been broken apart. They’ve taken years to build, and you take a wrecking ball to it reluctantly.”
The consultation on the process will be closed by the DCMS in just over a fortnight. Whittingdale confirmed that, contrary to skepticism in the ranks, no decision had yet been made, but the government will be publishing a white paper on the topic later in the year.
He revealed that the DCMS plans to include its decision among several other topics – including pre- and post-watershed advertising and new obligations for streamers – in a single Media Bill to be brought before Parliament during the next session.