Keeping their word 

22 March 2010 tbs.pm/1171

Channel 4 select committee review is a stinker

Channel 4 may have been doing relatively well as of late, even whilst managing to dodge all the problems that have similarly affected broadcasters in general (especially public service ones – just look at ITV’s woes), but that hasn’t prevented this particular culture, media and sport committee from having a go at Andy Duncan (so to speak).

Bear in mind that I’m not claiming that the partnership of Andy Duncan and Luke Johnson has been ‘perfect’ in the running of Channel 4, but that most of the ‘mistakes’ that they have made may not have been entirely their fault in the first place.

It may be true that Channel 4 bosses exaggerated the broadcaster’s problems at an earlier stage, but they were just being as pessimistic as the rest of the media industry was at the time; management were covering their backs in the event of a potential financial calamity, and it was up to others to correctly interpret the figures that they were presenting.

Although the main Channel 4 still does occasionally misfire ratings-wise, other digital channels such as E4 in particular have proven to be very successful in sticking to a tried and tested formula; Glee in particular being an acquisition that has been spot on for the broadcaster and its target audience.

OK, so digital radio didn’t exactly turn out to be C4’s strong suit, but DAB digital radio has now turned out to be a slower ‘burn’ than many had predicted (or would have liked), and the recession came along to wipe out any possibility of a quick financial return for a gamble with a fair degree of risk attached to it. (It certainly looked good on paper.)

In respect of digital radio, it was very likely to be Ofcom’s fault for giving the go-ahead to the Channel 4 Radio project when it ultimately turned out not to be viable, unless of course there was a case of deliberate deception involved with the financial side of the project.

Or that there was no conceivable way that Ofcom could have foreseen the project’s demise, which is not only extremely unlikely but in itself could also point to administrative failings within Ofcom.

And it’s rather unfair to roundly criticise C4 for breaking one or two promises when ITV has been routinely breaking promises for more than a decade (the merger of Carlton and Granada promised “better programming”…); well at least until ITV stopped pretending to be openly providing a public service over and above the barest minimum of its obligations.

As for the fact that the main channel is actually supporting C4’s digital spin-offs financially (E4, Film4, More4) as opposed to the other way round as originally intended, surely the very act of providing channels such as Film4 and More4 is a public service in its own right, especially in the “multichannel age”?

It may be true that More4 has been a relative disappointment from a public service perspective, but you should blame that on the current nature of Channel 4’s funding as opposed to the basic concept of providing an additional channel of such a nature. More4 may not be BBC Four but such a thing may be unattainable anyway.

Put another way, if ITV plc (another “public service broadcaster”, remember) had been running Channel 4, Channel 4 News would have probably been reduced to a five minute bulletin before being moved to another slot in the schedule. And this would have happened ten years ago.

Then there’s the issue of turning Channel 4 into “another BBC”, namely ministers suddenly realising that the ‘monster’ that could result from C4 moving into other media sectors could in turn impinge on the activities of the commercial sector, such as whatever James Murdoch may decide to do next.

Therefore C4 may now require the whole battery of “public value tests”, etc., that the BBC is now routinely exposed to, including an equivalent of the BBC Trust, erm., something else that isn’t the BBC Trust but is strong enough to put Channel 4 (and perhaps the BBC as well) in its place. Which they haven’t even thought of yet.

So it turns out that government ministers want a strong public service broadcaster but nothing too strong so as not to upset its commercial colleagues, which somehow seems to defeat the whole purpose of having a ‘stronger’ public service broadcaster in the first place.

Make your minds up, ministers.