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15 March 2004

MediaGuardian: Four’s war of independence

There has been lots of talk recently about the future of Channel 4, with suggestions ranging from a merger/”reverse nationalisation” with Five to a more hostile takeover from ITV (possible if Channel 4 was cut free from its obligations), as well as keeping things exactly as they are at the moment.

Channel 4’s current position is stated as being ‘enviable’, to quote: “But, other than the free spectrum it has been given by government, the channel is entirely commercially funded. This brings with it enormous advantages: an independence from government that the licence fee-funded BBC can never match”. This is only partially true – if the BBC wasn’t under the pressure of a forthcoming charter review, it could be just as independent of government pressure as Channel 4 with the added bonus of being free from having to attract and serve advertisers. And Channel 4 could always be cut free from its protected status by the government of the day as a ‘punishment’; a move that is far easier to execute than modifying the BBC’s structure.

But is Channel 4 worth saving in its current form? Channel 4 may theoretically have a public service remit but in recent years it appears to have evolved further away from the ideals of such a remit. Indeed it has been the pressure of having to attract advertisers of its own since its connections with ITV were severed that appears to have caused the greatest damage in recent years, and its similarities with a commercial outfit such as Channel Five are now rather too close for comfort.

A suggestion from Channel 4 itself as how best to protect its long term future is a conversion to trust status, but that still wouldn’t solve the fundamental problem of being driven by the need to attract advertisers. Perhaps the only solution to this problem is something altogether more radical such as a “Channel 4 Tax” whereby commercial broadcasters are taxed according to their audience share with the money being used ostensibly to fund “small independent production companies”.

If this government is serious about protecting the interests of small independent production companies it may have to embark on a similar course of action, since it is likely that both ITV and Sky will tend to rely on a small handful of larger ‘independents’ and the BBC cannot be relied on to prop up the rest of the sector (even if this government wants it to). So the answer to the question “Is Channel 4 worth saving?” is “Yes”, but the solution will have to be very creative in order to be truly successful.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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