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The privatisation of Channel 4: does it even matter?

It’s hard to believe that Channel 4 is Margaret Thatcher’s baby. The channel which recently broke viewing figure records with the fabulous It’s a Sin was originally created by Thatcher’s government to disturb the TV landscape, bringing the neoliberal values of competition and risk-taking to the small screen. Channel 4 was supposed to bring Thatcherism to our screens, but instead became a bastion of TV that spoke to many who were disaffected in the Thatcher years. Sadly though, this might not last much longer. In very Thatcherite fashion, the current government is seeking to privatise the channel – and it’s likely they’ll succeed. 

As soon as next year the channel could be sold off by the government, supposedly to ‘provide a sustainable future’ for the broadcaster which, like all terrestrial networks, has been struggling more in recent years to compete with streaming. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden confirmed in May that a formal consultation into the channel’s privatisation would be launched as part of a wider government review of public service broadcasting announced last year. 

While it is owned by the government, Channel 4 relies on an advertising-funded model. Unlike the BBC which is funded by the subscription-like licence fee, this model relies more directly upon the popularity and success of the channel’s viewing figures. In TV’s heyday, the 1990s and early 2000s, such a model was a lucrative source of income. Nowadays though, while Channel 4 has reported some significant increases in viewing figures over the last year (a pandemic bounce perhaps), this model cannot provide the same sustainability and reliability as subscriptions. 

Since the advent of streaming services, having viewing broken up by adverts and breaks has become more unappetising. There is a lot to be said for undisturbed viewing, although that isn’t exactly the crux of the matter. Despite the success of shows like It’s a Sin and Channel 4’s free streaming service, All 4, the channel simply cannot compete with the volume of shows that Netflix can offer. 

It’s likely that the channel will be privatised with little protest or opposition, but whether that will precipitate major changes in its output and content cannot be said

The days where Channel 4 was a model of nationalisation – being state-owned but able to rely on its own funding – are now gone. It’s likely that the channel will be privatised with little protest or opposition, but whether that will precipitate major changes in its output and content cannot be said. Certainly, the kind of hands-on ownership a company would provide may prove more unstable for the broadcaster, and seemingly with its current adaptations and streamlined output the government’s reasons for privatising Channel 4 must be questioned. 

I find myself struggling to build up the outrage necessary for some sort of tirade against privatisation and the conservative government. This isn’t the death of Channel 4 per se. It could transpire that this move will be looked back upon as one which saved the channel, possibly allowing it to grow to new heights. Maybe a new management would foster the kind of risk-taking and innovation that’s so necessary to make the channel more able to compete with the streamers? 

Channel 4 has already made moves in the direction of establishing what is, in effect, a free streaming service in All 4, and with programmes such as First Dates, Gogglebox, Come Dine with Me and Countdown. The channel has certainly garnered a rich household reputation. Partnerships with American companies have also brought other great shows to the channel in recent years, namely Catch-22 and Rick and Morty. If the channel is privatised or – God forbid – forced to wrap things up, the threat to our viewing would be minimal. Popular programmes would be bought by other channels or have their formats copied. 

If the streamlined and tech-savvy Channel 4 is facing privatisation, how will the behemoth BBC fare? 

We should take some time to appreciate Channel 4 in its current form. It’s a hidden gem of British TV and would be missed if forced off air or altered dramatically. But let’s not fool ourselves in bemoaning some sort of gigantic and irreplaceable loss. Channel 4 has a reputation as remarkable provider of journalism, hard-hitting documentaries, and excellent comedy, but in recent years even these have been ebbing. The decline of Channel 4 might become one in terms of its quality and output as the pandemic bounce may not last long. If that is so, privatisation probably won’t do much to change things for us. 

On the other hand, for those at the BBC, the privatisation of Channel 4 would set an ominous tone. Many Conservatives are already keen to decry the broadcaster’s perceived faults and with so many millions now avid Netflix bingers, the likelihood of a future where people are still happy to pay for a TV licence is looking bleak. If the streamlined and tech-savvy Channel 4 is facing privatisation, how will the behemoth BBC fare? 

Amongst younger viewers, Netflix is already more popular than BBC iPlayer, and while the talk of a peaceful coexistence between the two sounds friendly it’s also revealing that the BBC recognises the hopelessness of attempting to compete on a level playing field against such a titan of streaming. This might not be a bad thing, although I know there are a few things I’d miss which a privately funded broadcaster would be more cautious to air, objective news being one of them.  

Similarly, would the tenacity of Channel 4’s journalists be dampened down if a private company were to take over? We probably wouldn’t like to know the answer. For all their faults, such publicly funded and owned channels owe far more to their viewers than those whose commitment is to shareholders. The privatisation of Channel 4 may not spell disaster, but it would help to put a few nails in a certain coffin. 

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