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Why former boss Michael Grade is wrong to switch sides on Channel 4 privatisation

Michael Grade (now Lord Grade of Yarmouth – the one in the Isle of Wight – in the Conservative cause) is one of the ornaments of the British entertainment industry.

A member of the Grade entertainment clan, his first job was as a sports writer on the Daily Mirror. Apparently he turned up on his first day in daddy Leslie’s Rolls-Royce. But nepotism isn’t always bad and Grade went on to be an inspiring director of programmes at LWT, chairman of the BBC from 2004 to 2006 and executive chairman of ITV from from 2007 to 2009 (mot such a happy sojourn).

From 1988 to 1997 he was chief executive of Channel 4, succeeding founder and guiding light Jeremy Isaacs who famously threatened to “throttle” him if he dumbed down its programmes. Grade, never lacking in chutzpah, did to a degree but he also fought the good fight for C4, batting off regular assaults from the Daily Mail which dubbed him Britain’s “pornographer in chief.”

So when Grade (below) says, as he did at Broadcasting Press Guild lunch, that he thinks C4 might prosper if it was privatised then it’s as well to listen.

Grade, who opposed privatisation in the past, is now officially a Tory of course and so was unlikely to say that what looks like becoming government policy is barmy. But it is.

Channel 4 under current boss David Abraham, a former St Luke’s adman, has struggled against its better funded rivals ITV, the BBC, Sky and, to a degree, Channel 5. In part this is because it doesn’t generate that much ad revenue, being a niche media choice. In part it’s because it decided to dispense with Big Brother (now on C5) which pulled in millions of viewers who wouldn’t, otherwise, have watched the channel, filled hours of programming relatively cheaply and built the station’s youth audience into an industry leader.

But it soldiers on (its most recent hit show is Gogglebox) and Channel 4 News is the best in the business (unless you’re in the Daily Mail camp, in which case it’s a soap box for lefties). And, crucially, it doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything.

Privatising the station would bring in, by most people’s estimates, only £1bn or so, hardly enough to make a meaningful dent in Britain’s £80bn debt mountain. If it were privatised then C4 News (an hour-long programme) would be jeopardised as, possibly, would its original programming. A privatisation would lead to a flotation or trade sale not far down the line and that would mean eventual ownership by a big, probably American, global media owner. How does that help anybody? These characters have more than enough ‘media assets.’

So Michael, not for the first time in a long and mostly distinguished career, is talking through his hat.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.
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