BACK IN 1999 I was interviewed by regulator Ofcom for a position as a non-executive director of Channel Four TV – and went on to the C4 board for six years from 2000. At the end of this interview, I asked the Ofcom chairman what they wanted from me as a director of C4 and his answer really surprised me: ‘we want you to make a nuisance of yourselves’ he said.
What a uniquely British answer and what a uniquely British institution C4 is: publicly owned; it’s a bit like a University in that it is commercially independent of Government, and raises and spends its own money.
Channel Four was set up in 1982 by Willie Whitelaw during Mrs Thatcher’s first government. Thatcher had been convinced that the new fourth channel should not be awarded to the existing ITV companies but rather should be set up as a new broadcaster with no studios and making no programmes for itself; instead it should commission all its programmes from others.
It was thought that this could lead to the setting up of many new independent TV production companies (‘indies’) and that’s exactly what happened. PACT, the trade association for UK indies, reports that last year their members booked over £3bn in revenues, and over £600m of that spend, the largest individual share, was from C4.
£1.28bn was also earned by exporting their productions to the rest of the world.
Channel Four has always been innovative: Jonathan Ross, Harry Hill, Jimmy Carr, Chris Evans, Graham Norton and many others all started on C4. It has screened some of the best British comedies, including Drop the Dead Donkey, The IT Crowd, Peep Show and Father Ted, plus imports such as Frasier and Friends.
C4 coverage of Test Match cricket and the Paralympics games were seen as taking dramatically new creative approaches to the coverage of sport, and their dramas have also been seen as intelligent and ‘edgy’ in programmes like ‘Queer as Folk’, Utopia, and Shameless. Dispatches and Unreported World consistently bring coverage of issues and locations not covered elsewhere. And it provides a different perspective of news and current affairs from the ‘establishment’ attitudes of other broadcasters.
Over the years C4 also developed a strong regional policy and supported many ‘indies’ from the regions – its office to support regional productions is based in Glasgow – and all C4 drama has always been produced outside London. Scotland has always watched more C4 programmes than any other UK region outside the South East.
So, what’s wrong with this picture? Although it is owned by the state, it has never cost the taxpayer a penny; indeed it makes profits and pays tax. It supports an incredibly strong British independent production sector and entertains, amuses and educates a sizable proportion of the UK’s viewers.
However, there are now indications that the Government is considering selling off C4, attracted by estimates that it may be worth £1bn. The most likely buyer would be a US media corporation.
There is no doubt that a fully commercial C4 would have to pay substantial dividends to its shareholders and would then find it impossible to make costly strands such as Channel 4 News to their current high standard.
The fragile balance of public and private sector broadcasters in the UK is unique and ensures that British TV remains the best in the world.
It would be a real shame if C4 was privatised and, as a consequence, it lost the ability to ‘make a nuisance of itself’.
Ian Ritchie was a Director of the Channel Four Television Corporation from 2000 until 2006.