What is Channel 4 for?

Often, discussions over public service broadcasting are couched in terms of a polite threat: “Pay the licence fee, or you’ll lose Life in Cold Blood”

I attended the Next on 4 event this morning, where Jon Snow hosted the launch of Channel’s 4 ‘strategic blueprint’. They are placing an emphasis on digital technologies in order to capture young audiences, and have launched a £50 million public service digital media fund.

Crucially, they are cutting their overseas aquisitions budget by £35 million, meaning less US shows. I wonder how this will affect the channel’s ratings over the next few years – surely the popular American dramas and comedies are a key draw?

Chief Executive Andy Duncan also announced that Channel 4 would be facing a £100 million funding gap by 2012 (the year of the digital switch-over), which they would be looking to make-up from public subsidy. The argument is that Channel 4 has recieved, in the form of a free analogue licence, about £150 million in public subsidy per year since it lauched. The channel would now like to see that subsidy continue in other forms. When challenged, Duncan argued that this figure was not some accounting sleight-of-hand, but represented a real edge that allowed them to run the channel in the way they should. Clearly, the money for this will have to come from one of two sources – the government’s central coffers, or the licence fee, but Duncan and his collegaues were relucant to suggest which this might be. In the coming months, we’re likely to see either (a) an ugly scrap between the BBC and Channel 4 over funding, or (b) an ugly scrap between publicly funded organisations on one hand, and commercial broadcasters on the other… over funding. Channel 4 were keen to talk simply about their unique position, but I don’t really see how a conversation can be had without constant reference to the BBC. They need to explain where they expect their new money to come from, and fast.

The conflict stems, of course, from the difficulty in quantifying the benefit of publically funded broadcasting. Often, discussions over public service broadcasting are couched in terms of a polite threat: “Pay the licence fee, or you’ll lose Life in Cold Blood“; “Fund us, or we’ll cancel Cutting Edge and replace it with Celebrity Big Brother’s 100 Greatest Moments“. When put in these terms, or when we consider the unpleasant prospect of the Murdoch-owned media dominating TV news, its easy to see how the arguments for public funding find favour. Though there are occasional controversies (like the Big Brother Race Row, or the BBC’s role in the David Kelly affair), I think the threat of back-to-back Love Island keeps the public and policymakers on-side.

However, a case could also be made that subsidies have the effect of shouldering smaller, regional and TV programme makers out of the market. In this analysis, it is less clear that the public (and our culture as a whole) is being served. Rather than constantly chasing the latest digital technologies, and ensuring every other show has its own blog and podcast, Channel 4 and the BBC simply need to prove that they are fostering the development of such regional talent. If they can do that, then I think they’ll be able to persuade government to give them the funding they ask for.

Cross posted at The Progressive.

4 thoughts on “What is Channel 4 for?”

  1. a national broadcaster as a leverage agent for regional economic development seems a flimsy rationale for public subsidy to me. in the corporate world, as you know, the shareholders would have broken up the entity by now in to an entertainment, information-delivering and merchandising company by now.

  2. I always thought the reason why we need public service broadcasting is a) to allow us to enjoy television programmes without being forced to watch advertisements and b) to allow the corporation to make programmes which are in the public interest but not necessarily money spinners.

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