LONDON – Britain’s Conservative government said on Wednesday it was planning to sell Channel 4, launched 39 years ago as an alternative to the BBC and ITV, to help secure its future as a public service broadcaster.
The advertising-funded channel was set up with a remit to provide challenging and distinctive programming for audiences under-served by traditional broadcasters.
Rather than making its own programmes, Channel 4 commissioned them from new production companies, helping establish Britain’s successful independent TV production sector.
Channel 4 questioned the government’s reasoning for the intended sale, saying it was financially in “rude health” and fulfilling its mandate.
But the government said Channel 4 was vulnerable to unstable advertising markets, and a move into private ownership with a changed remit could help safeguard its future.
It also said it would consult on bringing the regulation of video-on-demand services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime into line with broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and Sky, for example in impartiality rules for documentaries and news content.
Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said Britain’s broadcasting rules dated to the 20th century analogue age.
“The time has come to look at how we can unleash the potential of our public service broadcasters while also making sure viewers and listeners consuming content on new formats are served by a fair and well-functioning system,” he said.
“So we’ll now be looking at how we can help make sure Channel 4 keeps its place at the heart of British broadcasting and level the playing field between broadcasters and video-on-demand services.”
Channel 4 Chief Executive Alex Mahon said the broadcaster’s ethos would be threatened by a sale.
“Our priority is about the impact we make on the public and the impact we make on the UK creative economy; it is not about the bottom line,” she told a committee of lawmakers on Tuesday.
“So it means that we are always in all the decisions we make able to put public service before profit.”
Previous governments have considered privatising Channel 4 but have backed down over concerns this could damage the independent TV production sector.
Enders Analysis said it believed it would be difficult for Channel 4 to maintain its remit – for example to champion unheard voices and take bold creative risks – with a new buyer paying any more than a “meagre sum”.
Channel 4 said on Tuesday its revenue in 2020 was “remarkably resilient”, finishing the year down 5% despite ad demand plummeting during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are clearly not struggling, we are in rude health,” Chairman Charles Gurassa told the lawmakers.
The government said it would consult on its plans before proposals for legislation were set out in the autumn.