Survival path 

12 January 2009

BBC director general backs merger of Channel 4 and Five

It won’t be long before Channel 4 finds out its long term fate later this month, but before that happens there’s the usual round of speculation and opinion-making that precedes such events. And it’s no surprise that the grand architect of a previous plan to merge Channels 4 and Five should again suggest that this proposal is the right way forward.

Mark Thompson was in charge of Channel 4 before Andy Duncan took over, and whilst Duncan embarked on a more public service-orientated philosophy for the channel, Thompson had previously been planning a completely different approach – was Thompson right in hindsight or is the current approach the way to go?

Whilst Channel 4 can lay claim to a fairly wide range of documentaries, Channel 4 News as well as several educational initiatives, its critics can point a finger at Big Brother plus a range of derivative programming (cookery, lifestyle, etc.) that have largely supplanted the very wide range of programming that the channel had during its first ten years.

Whether what remains of Channel 4’s public service remit actually needs special legislative protection has been a subject of a lengthy (and at times, quite heated) debate, and it still seems clear that giving the channel the ability to sell advertising airtime has been detrimental to its remit, regardless of what anyone currently at Channel 4 might say.

Then there’s the hurdle of legislation being required if tougher regulation of public service broadcasting is needed (about ten years too late if the truth is told), and of course will also encompass other public service remits such as what’s left of the Channel 3 (ITV) remit.

The easy answer from the perspective of government ministers might be to just throw Channel 4 to the private sector wolves (what’s currently left of them), which would inevitably force Andy Duncan to make a long term choice for the channel, namely either the path of public trust conversion or some form of merger with Channel Five.

In short, the circumstances that Mark Thompson was actively preparing for whilst he was at Channel 4 – namely, privatise or die – would be imposed on the channel, and it will be up to the current management to pursue whatever option(s) that they felt most comfortable with.