UK government moves to sell Channel 4 are “a solution searching for a problem”

One thing that unites all Conservative governments in the UK is their desire to sell Channel 4, a free-to-air channel set up by their heroine Margaret Thatcher to challenge the duopoly of BBC and ITV. Indeed in its early days Channel 4 was referred to by some as ITV 2, as it was supported by the then cash-rich monopoly supplier of TV advertising.

A lot has changed since of course: Mrs T didn’t get what she expected, rather an unruly left-leaning channel that, to this day, tweaks the tail of the Tories. But in the 40 or so years since its inception C4 hasn’t cost much money, has won buckets of awards, provided an effective way of reaching young audiences and amused the groundlings. What’s the problem or, as one of its bosses David Abraham memorably put it, calls to sell the channel are: “a solution searching for a problem.”

It’s not as though selling C4 would bring in a lot of money; it turns over about £1bn but that’s hardly likely to make much of a dent in UK government borrowing, at record levels thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. Any new owner would slash costs, maybe ditch its (mostly) estimable news service and create a degree of public discontent.

So why does PM Boris Johnson want to flog it? The ostensible reason is that it’s an anachronism in the brave new era of streaming. C4 is a publisher broadcaster so it doesn’t own all the rights to the programmes it broadcasts (although it often has a stake) and programme rights are the gold currency of streaming. But even the mighty Netflix doesn’t (yet) make a profit. and there’s no guarantee that the increasingly crowded streaming market (Disney, Apple, Amazon, Warner now with Discovery) will ever deliver one to most of its participants. Amazon uses it to boost its delivery service.

But bull-in-a-china-shop Johnson (C4 hasn’t always been nice to Boris but you can see why) wants to be the Tory who finally despatches this irksome Tory invention. C4’s charter is up for renewal in 2024. If it withers on the vine before then, fine look at it.

In the meantime Boris should leave well alone. He’s supposed to be a conservative after all.

PS I see that Google has extended its Chrome cookies lifetime by a coupe of years to 2023. A win for media agencies and the likes of the US Association of Nationnal Advertisers – if not necessarily the rest of us.

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About Stephen Foster

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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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