Channel 4: a fantastic asset for the country
Channel 4 is a national success story that belongs to all of us. It’s created great shows like Derry Girls, Countdown, or It’s A Sin while delivering challenging journalism through Dispatches and Channel 4 News.
That’s all thanks to its unique model: publicly owned but commercially funded, its freedom from profit-hunting means it can take risks on new content without costing the public a penny.
Channel 4 was created as a publicly owned broadcaster by Margaret Thatcher following The Broadcasting Act 1980 as part of the move to create a fourth channel for UK audiences. It launched on the 2nd of November 1982.
“Of the £938m revenues we made last year, £600m went into content, and £430m of that into the British creative sector. That, for me, is a fantastic asset for the country." David Abraham, former Chief Executive of Channel 4
What's different about Channel 4?
Channel 4 is owned by us all. It was created as a part of the Government’s Independent Broadcasting Authority but is now owned by Channel Four Television Corporation, a public corporation under the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport.
Conservative Governments have attempted to privatise Channel 4 several times over the last 40 years, including in:
1988 — a White Paper called ‘Broadcasting in the 90s’ selected privatisation as a preferred option; its Chief Executive successfully prevented the plans citing concerns that you “could have a privatised channel or one with a public service remit, but not both.” Even Margaret Thatcher decided to keep it in public hands.
1996 — John Major’s cabinet supported a privatisation attempt but relented after campaigners raised fears that profit-seeking would lead to American films replacing News content and usually pro-privatisation Sir Michael Bishop called it a “a philistine approach.”
Part-privatisation was also proposed by Ofcom in the late 2000s, but rejected by the Government and Channel 4 itself. Plans to privatise were discussed in 2014, but abandoned after Vince Cable refuse to take them forward.
2016 — Culture Minister John Whittingdale looked into privatising Channel 4, but again decided against it.
2021-2023 — The Government started a consultation on Channel 4 privatisation in 2021 and despite 60,000 people responding, with over 90% against the plans, the Government announced plans to push ahead with the privatisation. We Own It supporters mobilised a massive campaign to stop the sell off, with backing from Armando Iannucci and the Archbishop of York. Senior Conservative MPs also called for Boris Johnson to put a halt to these plans. In January 2023, the plans were again abandoned. We Own It supporters were listed in the 100 Changemakers for 2023 by the Big Issue for their role in the effort. For more on the campaign, read our blog here.
- Channel 4 makes up to £2 billion for the economy each year.
- In 2021, Channel 4’s revenues hit £1 billion, a 19% growth from 2020. It reported a £74 million pre-tax surplus and net cash reserves of £201 million.
- A fifth of total corporation revenues came from digital advertising, an increase of 40% year on year. C4 aims to hit a 30% digital advertising revenue target by 2025. It is the biggest, free-to-air digital service in this country.
- Analysts suggest that a privatised Channel 4 would have to make 40% to 50% cuts to its £660 million programming budget.
- Channel 4 made a first-of-its-kind deal in Europe with YouTube to take control of ad sales on its content, making 1000 hours of content available for free.
- Netflix has a $15 billion debt and falling share prices while Channel 4 has no organisational debt.
- In 2022, Ernst and Young’s reporting projects that privatisation risks a 35% drop in regional jobs dependent on Channel 4.
- In 2020, Channel 4 produced 58% of its content in the nations and regions outside London and has committed to spending 50% of its budget outside London by 2023.
- Independent production companies in the nations and regions, which in 2019 received £189 million from Channel 4.
- Every year since 2013, it has commissioned over 50% of its programming from producers beyond London.
- Around 140 small businesses rely on Channel 4 for more than half of their production revenue. As many as 60 production companies are projected to be put at significant risk under a private ownership model.
- Under public ownership, Parliament has used its power to prompt Channel 4 to move its head office to Leeds. Additionally, it has hubs in Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Bradford and beyond.
- The move to Leeds has started a “creative resurgence in the city” with jobs in other industries booming too — e.g., building and workshops.
- It supports 10,000 jobs around the country.
“If ever a private shareholder went to deliver the minimum of the licence requirements currently in the white paper, then that would be an impact of up to £320mn a year on the independent sector, and £86mn a year on spending in the nations and regions, and one might say that, as a private owner, why would you not go for the minimum?” Alex Mahon, Chief Executive of Channel 4
- Channel 4 has a skills and training programme, creating career opportunities for 15,000 young people, targeted at those in the poorest areas.
- In Bradford, the Channel 4 Film Makers Unit is providing a £50,000 short film content fund for 16 creatives.
“Channel 4 did not make its own programmes. TV producers were encouraged to set up companies and seek commissions from the new broadcaster. Channel 4’s function, therefore, was to incubate a culture of risk-taking that was very much in keeping with the Thatcherite vision of a share-owning, home-owning Britain of small business owners.” David Olusoga
- Polling in the Times shows 82% of us believe Channel 4 belongs in public ownership, including 76% of Conservative voters.
- The three most important issues for people who want Channel 4 to stay in public hands are: the jobs it creates in the UK, avoiding foreign ownership of the broadcaster, and its independence.
- The government’s own consultation received over 60,000 responses and 96% of them opposed privatisation.
- Advertising agencies are against privatisation as it would reduce their choice.
- Because Channel 4 does not seek a profit, it has been able to put on culturally important sporting events, including the Paralympics, free-to-view Test Cricket for the first time in 14 years, and live free-to-view Rugby League matches “for the first time in a generation.”
- Creatives feel strongly that hit comedies, like Derry Girls. would not have been made by a privatised Channel 4.