The Government has said it would want Channel 4’s minimum news and current affairs programming requirements to remain in the event of its sale.
The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on Tuesday said its preferred option for the channel was to “facilitate a change of ownership” via a full sale as it opened a ten-week consultation on its proposals for reform.
But it said Channel 4’s legal requirements to provide a “high provision” of news and current affairs content should be “broadly retained” in the event of a change of ownership.
The channel airs an hour-long news programme at 7pm each weekday, which is sometimes extended when major news events take place, plus half-hour bulletins at the weekends. Its flagship current affairs programme is Dispatches.
Channel 4 is obligated to provide more national news and current affairs than ITV or Channel 5 – at least 208 hours per year at peak times of news and 208 hours per year of current affairs, of which 80 hours must be at peak times. News provision for all three channels, all of which exceeded their quotas in 2019, is produced by ITN.
For comparison, Channel 5 is required to broadcast 280 hours per year of news, of which 120 hours must be at peak times, plus 130 hours per year of current affairs (10 hours at peak).
It has asked Ofcom to reduce its peak time news requirements to 20 hours so it can change its two 30-minute news bulletins at 5pm and 6.30pm to one hour-long programme at 5pm. The regulator is minded to approve the plan.
In its consultation, the Government is asking whether Channel 4 should “continue its contribution to levelling up the regions and nations of the UK through retaining a presence outside London and a strengthened regional production remit”.
It also wants to know if the channel’s remit and obligations should be revised “to ensure it remains relevant in an evolving broadcasting market”.
The Government said it was “currently of the view that Channel 4’s existing obligations relating to a high provision of news and current affairs content should be broadly retained in any potential reform”.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “It is our current view, to be tested through this consultation, that a new ownership model for Channel 4 would be the best means of ensuring its future success and sustainability as a public service broadcaster and its continued contribution to the UK’s creative industries.
“There are constraints that come with public ownership, and a new owner could bring access and benefits, including access to capital, to strategic partnerships and to the international markets. Private investment would mean more content, and more jobs.”
Channel 4, which is is owned by the Government and receives its funding from advertising, will see its licensing period expire at the end of 2024. The Government said now is therefore the right time to review the relationship.
The channel was founded in 1982 to deliver to under-served audiences.
The DCMS said if Channel 4 could secure a new partner with access to capital, and became free from the current limits on its borrowing, it could “accelerate its ability to weather changes in the market whilst continuing to invest in content and the organisation”.
“It could also allow it to transition to a ‘digital first’ future and safeguard the long-term sustainability of its business,” it added. “A new partner could potentially also provide new expertise and opportunities for collaboration and scale.”
The Government said there was no “merit or justification” for just a proportion of Channel 4 to be retained in public ownership and it would therefore want to sell 100% “should any change of ownership be pursued”.
Primary legislation would be needed to convert it into a body prospective purchasers, potentially including major US media giants, could own as Channel 4 is a statutory body.
Channel 4’s chief executive Alex Mahon questioned the “logic” behind privatisation in an interview with Times Radio last month, raising concerns a profit-based US buyer would not have the same motivation to “level up” outside London.
Chris Matheson, shadow minister for digital, culture, media and sport, wrote in the Times on Tuesday that the “anti-British” proposal was “part of a sinister trend with this government of closing down scrutiny or opposition”.
He warned privatisation would affect Channel 4’s ability to meet its remit to be challenging and distinctive and damage the independent TV production sector.
Picture: RTS (Channel 4 News team pick up daily news programme of the year award at the Royal Television Awards 2019)