Piling on the pressure 

1 April 2009 tbs.pm/1036

Channel Five boss claims government sees logic of merger with Channel 4

It seems that Dawn Airey and RTL have spotted a gap in the broadcasting wilderness and are desperately trying to head for it. But what are the realistic prospects for a merger between Channel 4 and Five, and are the two broadcasters really like “oil and water” as previously claimed by C4’s Andy Duncan?

It’s certainly true that Channel 4 still has a reasonably strong public service remit coupled with public ownership – unlike Channel Five – but its recent reliance on advertising and sponsorship has weakened any ‘pure’ public service credentials it once had and has made it vulnerable to the same commercial pressures that have afflicted ITV and Channel Five.

Of course it’s likely that government ministers can see the potential for a Channel 4-Five merger, but that doesn’t mean that such a merger automatically translates to a complete match with any intention to maintain and strengthen public service content as suggested by the recent Digital Britain report.

And given the history of broken promises in relation to commercial television (namely, ITV’s declining public service remit), it’s hardly surprising that the prospect of a Channel 4-Five merger has taken second place in deference to a potential BBC Worldwide tie-up for Channel 4, at least in terms of public service ideology.

In terms of Channel Five, RTL has been on its best behaviour in relation to maintaining the channel’s remit, but that may of course be linked with the parent company’s desire to gain a serious foothold in the UK broadcasting market. It’s no good breaking promises ITV-style if you don’t have a secure enough foothold in the broadcasting hierarchy.

If Channel 4 wants to maintain its independent public service position and avoid a merger with Channel Five, then Andy Duncan has to further emphasise the future possibilites for Channel 4 in relation to strengthening public service content above and beyond what its portfolio of channels already has to offer.

Because if nobody at Channel 4 can be bothered to robustly counter such arguments as put forward by Dawn Airey, then RTL may end up winning its argument by default given the current economic situation and the protracted difficulty that Channel 4 has had in securing support from BBC Worldwide.