So, here we go again. Another review of public service broadcasting and another round of soul searching about whether to privatise Channel 4. It’s a bit like reviewing supermarkets and deciding to spin out the flowers.
The focus here should be on value for money. Why sell off a very valuable public asset for short-term gain, when the bigger gain is to be found in sweating that asset to underpin the BBC’s licence fee? Don’t flog it. Merge it with the BBC. In supermarket terms. Two for one.
Of course, the current review is another attempt to rationalise the strange, sometimes frustrating but curiously brilliant ecology that has underpinned our public service provision since 1926, when the BBC morphed from the British Broadcasting Company to the British Broadcasting Corporation. More importantly, the change ushered in the notion of public funding, something the public by and large still support, remembering that the BBC is far more than its national news provision and rows about whether a few good men were taken in by a bounder.
In thinking about nurturing and sustaining public service broadcasting (PSB) provision across our green and pleasant land, we cannot look at one flower and ignore the rest of the garden. The biggest challenge is not the sustainability of Channel 4 per se, but public service broadcasting itself, as all our terrestrial, state-protected broadcasters try to navigate a path from a protected lineal world to the cold chills of cyberspace. Streaming is the future, as it always was, even when Channel 4 was launched in 1982.
Those of a certain age will remember the verve, excitement, chaos and pain of 2 November 1982. Channel 4’s first night. There were only three terrestrial channels and the BBC’s hegemony over both television and radio was clear. A black and white Fleet Street in decline and disarray. Above us no Sky. And YouTube was over two decades away as Tim Berners-Lee was still beavering away on what would later become the world wide web. Mobile phones were two years away and a tablet was something you got from the doctors. It was into this world that Channel 4 arrived with its singular contribution to the UK’s creative landscape: 30% more airtime.
It had to be filled, so it had to take new people with new ideas and new ways of doing things, with the remit to provide a platform and voice for those not previously heard, while stimulating the nascent independent production sector.
Stream forward to 2021, take a break from whatever screen you are looking at, then try to count the various platforms, never mind channels and apps that you could lose yourself in. Having had my name on Channel 4 from that first night to today’s episode of Hollyoaks, I can look back and say what was then a brilliant tweak to the PSB ecology, now looks more and more like an anachronism. The challenge then was to break ITV’s monopoly on the television advertising market, the licences to print money, while fulfilling that strong public service remit. Neither now seem so urgent or relevant.
The government is right to keep reviewing Channel 4’s place in the PSB garden, but it needs to avoid transplanting when all that’s needed is a bit of dead-heading. There will be the usual privateers and carpetbaggers rabble-rousing on the verges, lusting for the sale, but, of course, only at a cut-price, bargain bin discount and, naturally, the right to ditch its remit.
Let us be under no illusion. Any would-be buyer will not be looking at Channel 4’s programming prowess, as it relies on others; nor its programme library, which is not extensive, but the back-office stuff like the publicly owned broadcasting frequencies it squats upon free of charge, its youth-oriented database and the prized, state protected position on the electronic programme guide. It may be fourth up, but it’s still always on the front page for the grazers to find.
Instead of wasting time debating all that, we should focus on rationalising and reinvigorating the whole notion of public service provision. We should stop trying to patch up the 100-year model the BBC is preparing to celebrate next year, and look, as Oliver Dowden, the secretary of state for culture suggests, for what is right for the 21st century. Including how it is all funded.
Folding Channel 4 into the BBC would not only allow the BBC to reach a section of the audience where they are weak, the 16-34 age group, but the £1bn advertising revenue would provide an immediate injection into the programming budget.
Oh yes, the naysayers will align with the carpetbaggers and raise the purist argument of no advertising on public service broadcasting, perhaps forgetting that Channel 4 itself is currently a public service broadcaster, as is, by the way, ITV. Ad-free was a 20th-century mantra, which in the 21st century seems well past its sell-by date. Running advertisements doesn’t seem to affect the editorial principles of media outlets like the Economist, FT and, er, this news provider.
A simple merger would allow the transfer of all assets and intellectual property at the stroke of a pen, just as the BBC did when shifting from company to corporation status nearly 100 years ago. No need for expensive due diligence; eliminate the admin and infrastructure costs and, for the taxpayers – the real shareholders – eliminate half-baked moments like one public service broadcaster spending huge amounts to steal a cooking show from another, driving up costs.
If there is a real passion to sell something and shore up the Covid-ravaged public finances, then once C4 is absorbed by the BBC the old crystal palace HQ in Horseferry Road, central London, could go, as indeed could the frequencies, auctioned off for more mobile streaming devices.
Above all though, putting £1bn a year into the BBC would not only underpin its viability but an injection of that scale into its content budget would probably stimulate exactly what the arrival of Channel 4 did in 1982. It could recapture the excitement, verve and innovation that a real shake-up of public service broadcasting would achieve. New people, new ideas, new ways of doing things.
Sir Philip Redmond CBE is a television producer and screenwriter