The Culture Secretary reiterated his belief that Channel 4 would benefit from a change in ownership, in the latest indication that the government intends to move forward with the privatization of the public broadcaster.
“I think if Channel 4 is to grow it will need cash soon,” he told the Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge on Wednesday. “It can come either on the backs of the taxpayer, or on private investments. And it’s my strong position – as a point of principle – that I don’t think a commercial TV station loan should be taken out by a grandma in Stockport or Southend.
Oliver Dowden’s comments are strongly contested by the bosses of Channel 4, who say it is already financially viable and would not need to bring in hypothetical taxpayers for additional funding.
This speech marks the end of a government consultation on the future of the broadcaster, which is currently required to reinvest all of its revenues in commissioning programs in the independent production sector. Over the summer, the broadcaster himself, independent production companies and even Sir David Attenborough came under fierce lobbying to maintain Channel 4’s unique status.
Channel 4 said if bought by a for-profit company it would cause a “nuisance” to the public. He said the new owners would likely reduce their investment in regional offices and drive ratings away from the original programming.
In an attempt to show off its public service credentials, Channel 4 spent a seven-figure sum to sublicense the rights to Amazon to show Emma Raducanu’s victory at the US Open on Saturday night. Although it had attracted over 9 million viewers, it was a leading product as the channel could not broadcast any advertising.
It is suspected that privatization could be politically motivated. The station and its news production have angered Tories on several occasions in recent years, especially in the 2019 general election when it replaced Boris Johnson with a melting ice sculpture during a debate.
Dowden said if the channel were privatized, he would ask it to maintain a commitment to current affairs and current affairs programming, regional production and commissioning of shows from independent producers. “If people disagree, then here is my challenge: tell me how they intend to protect Channel 4 and the creative industries at large in a fairer and more sustainable way. Because standing still is not an option. In fact, it would be an act of self-harm.
A report by Ampère Analysis, however, suggested that up to 60 small independent production companies could close their doors if their work for Channel 4 runs out after privatization.