Television production companies have denounced the government’s plan to privatize Channel 4, expressing fears that a new owner would have leeway to squeeze the producers of British “indy” programs out of a network that has been their cornerstone for the last few years. four decades.
The creators of some of Britain’s best-known shows are preparing to make critical submissions to a government consultation on the sale of the commercially-funded but state-owned broadcaster.
Several producers have said privatization could spell disaster for the industry, as ministers are expected to review Channel 4’s operation to maximize sales revenue. They fear that potential changes include reducing its public service remit that encourages independent programming, restricting producers’ freedoms to authorize content abroad, and transferring production in-house.
Alan Clements, Managing Director of Two Rivers Media, Co-producer of Escape to the castle, said there was a real risk that the proposals would lead to “a wave of businesses that fold.”
Established by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1982 to challenge the hegemony of British broadcasting, Channel 4 has facilitated the development of a vibrant independent production sector, commissioning distinctive, innovative and at times contentious content from a plethora of filmmakers. programs.
Unlike the BBC and commercial broadcasters, Channel 4 does not have the right to produce its own content, which makes it a hub for “indies”.
Since its inception, Channel 4 has invested £ 12bn in UK-produced material and last year placed orders for 274 production companies. Among the station’s highlight moments is a lesbian kiss before the turn Brookside and dissemination of a public autopsy.
Although the government has not made a final decision, Media Secretary John Whittingdale has said it will become “very difficult to keep” Channel 4 in public hands as more viewers turn to to streaming services such as Netflix, putting its advertising-dependent business model under “increasing pressure.”
Whittingdale has sought to reassure small producers that a change in ownership must not harm their interests, arguing that opening up private sources of capital would better protect Channel 4’s future.
In the current structure, the broadcaster is not designed to make a profit. The Treasury could bring in between £ 600bn and £ 1.5bn from the sale of Channel 4, according to estimates by Enders Analysis, a media research firm, but the amount would depend on changes to how it operates and savings generated by a new owner.
One obvious way for ministers to improve the performance of the Leeds-based broadcaster would be to dilute its public service demands, which range from information provision to cultural diversity and wide geographic representation.
“This production is not necessarily ‘commercial’ or very profitable,” said writer and satirist Armando Iannucci. “But they define the DNA of Channel 4.”
Speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival last week, Whittingdale said the mandate “will remain” in the event of privatization. He added that some changes could be made to the mandate, but these would be designed to protect small independents.
The minister argued that it was Channel 4’s mix of “distinctive and bolder content” and mainstream content that would make it appealing to a business owner. Its “brand value” would be “enhanced by the mission,” he said.
Even if ministers maintained these requirements, production companies believe that a private sector owner would commit less.
“You have to ask yourself how easy it really is to enforce these things if it’s not publicly owned,” said Lucinda Hicks, managing director of Banijay UK, whose shows include Black Mirror, The Crystal Labyrinth and Intermediate.
The government’s plans, she added, threatened to destroy “the ethics on which Channel 4 was founded.”
India is also concerned that ministers may be tempted to change intellectual property rules to make the asset more attractive to a business owner.
When Channel 4 orders content, it is usually for a limited time and for UK use only, allowing producers to sell the rights to the program in overseas markets.
John McVay, managing director of Pact, a trade association for UK production and distribution companies, said the way Channel 4 handles intellectual property is critical to the health of the industry. Streaming services are not subject to the same regulation, he noted.
“Brand new owner [of Channel 4] would fight for the terms of trade to be diluted, ”Clements said. “How else could they monetize intellectual property?
“For the people [at independent production companies] trying to increase investments in the future would make it really difficult. I think what you will see is a wave of companies that fold and a wave of consolidation.
Whittingdale said existing intellectual property agreements would continue, adding that ministers had “no current intention” to change them. Pact’s McVay said he welcomed the comments, but called for a “clear and strong guarantee.”
Whatever happens to intellectual property rights, independent producers fear that Channel 4 will start making its own programs, diverting resources from their sector.
“Freelancers like mine won’t get the job,” said Sanjay Singhal, co-founder of Voltage TV, creator of the BBC. What do we feed our children. Shifting production in-house, he said, would be one of the few ways to “make the economy [of privatisation] job”.
Whittingdale said that if Channel 4 were acquired by an owner with their own production facilities, “they will obviously be able to use it”. But he added that the broadcaster would retain a public service remit and would be required to commission a “proportion” of content from outside.
The minister argued that small producers, in particular, could be protected. The industry has changed dramatically since the 1980s, he noted. Waves of consolidation have created “super indies” and many of the industry’s leading operators, such as Banijay, are owned by foreigners.
“Some companies are bigger than Channel 4,” Whittingdale said. “They don’t really need a lot of support.
Yet Singhal said it was ultimately impossible for Channel 4 to maintain its public service mission, invest larger sums in content, and simultaneously generate adequate financial return for a private sector owner. “Where’s the magic money tree?” ” He asked.
Streaming services are unlikely to fill the void, Banijay’s Hicks said. “While streamers do indeed offer choices and opportunities, it is on a very different level. They have no obligation to represent and celebrate the Britishness and diversity that C4 has worked so hard to showcase. “
There is also deep skepticism in the industry as to the government’s motives. The broadcaster has clashed with right-wing politicians over the years, most notably in an episode two years ago when Boris Johnson refused to participate in an election debate on climate change and he was replaced by a sculpture of ice.
Pat Younge, former creative director at the BBC and co-owner of Cardiff Productions, which makes documentaries such as Angry white and american, argued that the government’s plans were driven by ideology rather than economics.
“For me, it’s ideological,” Younge said. “If you look at their reasons for selling Channel 4, to me they don’t really compare. It sounds like an answer in search of a problem.
The government said: “We are consulting on whether a change in ownership could help secure Channel 4’s long-term future and it is clear that we want to maintain the company’s mandate as a thriving public service broadcaster. “
The consultation ends in two weeks. A government white paper is expected in the fall.