Channel 4 Sale: UK Culture Secretary Sets Out Government’s Privatization Ambitions

In his speech to the Royal Television Society Convention on Wednesday, UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden will spell out the Conservative Government’s reasoning for wanting to privatize broadcaster Channel 4.

Dowden will argue that new private investment would allow the channel to better keep up with the SVODs such as Netflix and Amazon and will point to Channel 4’s recent deal struck with Amazon for joint rights to the U.S. Open tennis final as the type of deal he would like to see more of going forward.

He will claim that Channel 4’s status as a PSB will continue in the event of a sale, with the obligations and requirements that come with it.

As part of its review of the wider PSB landscape, the UK Government recently launched a public consultation on the future ownership of Channel 4, the broadcaster of hit shows including The Great British Bake Off, Gogglebox and It’s A Sin. The consultation closed on Tuesday night (14 September), however some see the sale as inevitable with multiple Tory governments over the years keen on privatization.

Dowden will tell the convention today, “Channel 4 is one of this country’s greatest assets… One clear way of making sure our British broadcasters thrive is putting them in the right financial position to compete and succeed for decades to come – no matter what the future of broadcasting holds.

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“Right now, Channel 4 is in a stable position. But I think too many people are fixated on Channel 4’s current situation. I’m much more concerned with its long-term future. And I believe that if Channel 4 wants to grow then at some point soon it will need cash. Without it, Channel 4 won’t have the money to invest in technology and programming, and it won’t be able to compete with the streaming giants.

He will continue: “The next obvious question: Where does that cash come from? It can either come on the back of the taxpayer, or it can come from private investment. And it’s my strong position – as a point of principle – that I do not believe the borrowing of a commercial TV channel should be underwritten by a granny in Stockport or Southend.

“Instead, we can help it unlock that much-needed investment. And we can do so while protecting the parts of Channel 4 that none of us want to lose.”

Dowden will claim that Channel 4’s public service remit will remain: “So if we do choose to proceed with a sale, I will make sure it remains subject to proper public service obligations. And I’d imagine those to include: a continued commitment to independent news and current affairs, to commissioning programming from the independent production sector, and that Channel 4 should continue to be representative of the entire nation.

“Let me be clear: I do not subscribe to the false binary choice between public service content and privatisation. We can have both. Channel 4 can continue to do what it does best: to fund original, risk-taking content – the kind you wouldn’t get anywhere else – and to showcase the very best of this country on free-to-view television.

“It did a fantastic job at broadcasting the Paralympics. I want it to keep doing that fantastic job in three years’ time, and the years after that. And I was so pleased that Channel 4 was able to bring the entire country together on Saturday night to cheer on Emma Raducanu in the US Open Final. We’ve needed these national moments this last year, and we need more of them on free-to-view television.

“A Channel 4 with a protected remit and deeper pockets could bring us many, many more in the future. If people disagree, then this is my challenge to them: please tell me how they’d intend to protect Channel 4 and the wider creative industries in a fairer, more sustainable way. Because standing still is not an option. In fact, it would be an act of self-harm.”

Channel 4 is publicly owned but commercially funded, mostly through TV advertising revenue, and is not required to turn a profit.

As reported by the Guardian, a recent Ampere Analysis Report claims that dozens of production companies would suffer from a sale. “If the government looks to relax Channel 4’s remit to derive more money from privatisation, then that would have a substantial negative impact on the UK production sector,” Richard Broughton, an analyst at Ampere, told the paper. “Channel 4 works with more small production companies than any other broadcaster, we estimate 200 over the last two years, and a privatised Channel 4 would likely leave many financially challenged.”

Channel 4’s own research estimates that up to 1,300 jobs would be lost from businesses that the broadcaster deals with if it moved out of public ownership.

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