C4: If it ain’t broke, break it
April 5, 2022
The UK government is pressing ahead with privatising Channel 4, though it is by no means guaranteed success as opposition is widespread, not least on its own benches.
The case for, as put forward by the DCMS, is that the broadcaster needs to be private to compete better with Netflix, Prime etc. For example, a private owner would be able to borrow money in the marketplace to invest in content. Meanwhile, the government, which optimistically expects to trouser £1 billion from the sale, says it will spend that money on the independent sector and its ‘levelling up’.
So many contradictions, it is hard to know where to start.
First, lest you need reminding, we have a Conservative government – the clue is, or used to be, in the name; Conserve the good stuff, no change for change’s sake. In our new Global, independent, Britain one of the few things we can wave at the world as an unalloyed success, both culturally and commercially, is our broadcast and content industry. No one seriously disputes that UK broadcast standards and output quality are almost uniquely high, and our balance of payments in international content trade is the envy of every other industry sector. Perfect conditions then to play around with the market and try something new?
Being private means C4 can compete with global streamers? Why would it want to? Competing from a commercial footing is going really well for so many in streaming isn’t it? All forecasts are for the market to shake out to three, tops four, in coming years. C4 won’t be among them, but there’s no reason it can’t continue as one of the UK’s most-used broadcaster VoD platforms; it got in early and has established an excellent brand and outreach to its target audience which it can increasingly monetise with better personalisation.
It will be better for the independent sector? Why, in what way? There seems zero evidence for this. How ironic that it was a Thatcherite policy that brought C4 into existence, and insisted on it commissioning everything, in order to invent an independent sector. It worked in a way few market intervention policies ever have. The fact that it has created a sector and broadcaster that – kind of inevitably – gives off the vibe of the liberal metropolitan elite, because they’re the people that make telly, is just another irony. And, of course, this is the problem the government really has with it, but more of that later.
It is certainly true that C4, like all media, has been too London-centric. But at least there are now significant pockets of production in regional cities – there was none before. And it has now decamped a large slice of itself to Leeds. And who, I mean, really who, believes a Tory government is best placed to rake in £1 billion and then spend it wisely on the creative sector, wherever it lives? Why is that even a government job – is the question many Conservatives will rightly ask?
If the government achieves a good price for C4 that means the buyer will, soon enough, be struggling with cost inflation and debt payments diluting its ROI. That means it will want to pay less and less for content and will want to make more and more itself to exploit the rights. If the government makes regulations strong enough to stop this happening (i.e., it mandates 100 per cent indie prod for ever), it begs two questions: Who is going to want to buy such a regulated broadcaster, at any price? And, what on earth is the point of the whole exercise?
Of course, the point is the government, or at least many within it, loathe C4 in the same way they loathe the BBC. And their policies are as much about revenge as they are about revenue. It is true that some programmes on C4 have adopted a style the equivalent of the anchor tapping you on the head with The Guardian for an hour but, even so, selling it off for that seems excessive. And where is the evidence a ‘different kind of news’ is in demand – GB News anyone?
This is the kind of policy that comes from a department that is more publicity-junky than policy-wonk. Hopefully, as this is a government that has shown it can U-turn, then U-turn its U-turn, in twenty-four hours, once the grown-ups have a think, it will end up in the long grass.