Will anyone save Channel 4? 

25 February 2009 tbs.pm/1025

MPs’ report expected to question BBC and Channel 4 linkup

Over recent months, around 90% of the media-related ministerial report ‘leaks’ have been ‘surprisingly’ accurate, so we can assume that any doubts in relation to a Channel 4-BBC Worldwide tie-up have some basis in fact.

One side of the argument presented here also partly fits in with the recent conclusion that resulted in the blocking of the BBC Worldwide-ITV-Channel 4 Kangaroo project, therefore it’s not difficult to see the influence of this decision in terms of concerns over a BBC Worldwide-Channel 4 partnership even if these doubts turn out to be unjustified in practice.

If anything, all of this exposes the continuing schism that exists between those ministers in favour of so-called public service media plurality (namely, ‘preserving’ Channel 4 at no direct cost to the taxpayer whilst letting ITV rot and Channel Five do its own thing), versus those who don’t want the BBC to become any stronger or weaker as a result of these shenanigans.

Unfortunately this ideological split may paralyze government decision-making to such an extent that any compromise package may end up being too little and too late to properly save Channel 4. Oh, and BBC Worldwide is a fully commercial entity, meaning that it has the freedom to do what it wants in order to make money.

Just like ITV plc, except that ITV recently, erm, hasn’t.

Of course what will happen to that freedom – and its money-making ability (plus any resulting income for the BBC) as a result of a Channel 4 partnership remains to be seen, and there are rightful concerns about the impact this may have on the BBC’s income from BBC Worldwide if the partnership ends up compromising this in any way.

The alternative to a BBC Worldwide partnership – namely throwing Channel 4 to the wolves of the private sector – would hand the broadcaster on a plate to either RTL/Mediaset or a US media giant as a result. Virgin Media is now losing money again, and BSkyB won’t be interested unless it wants to block Virgin Media from doing likewise.

And you can wave goodbye to the long-term preservation of Channel 4’s public service remit (based on ITV plc’s track record) if a private Channel 4 buy-out does happen.

Whilst government ministers fight amongst themselves to try and thrash out a conclusion that at least partly satisfies everyone, my message to Channel 4 is that the only real solution to your mess may be to take some radical action for yourself (becoming a public trust perhaps?) if you are really interested in preserving a strong public service remit.

And given Film4’s recent and spectacular success at the Oscars with Slumdog Millionaire, it’s a pity that good work like this may be lost forever as a result of petty squabbling amongst ministerial rivals with ideological differences to settle.

However, recently seeing a clip on YouTube directly credited to Channel 4 with the title “World’s biggest breasts” (of the female variety) did cause me to momentarily doubt their public service intentions, since that was the sort of stunt that Channel 5 would have pulled ten years ago as opposed to the remit of a wannabe public service broadcaster.

It would be nice if Channel 4 could prove those doubts wrong.