Almost since Channel 4 launched 38 years ago, with the first episode of Countdown, there has been speculation that it is facing privatisation.
In January 1983, just two months after the channel launched, Kevin Goldstein-Jackson – the executive who helped launch hits like Tales of the Unexpected and who later headed the ITV franchise operator Television South West – was calling for it to be privatised.
As Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation revolution rolled on through the 1980s, the calls kept coming, often from surprising directions.
In 1987, Michael Grade, who was then managing director of BBC television and who later went on to be dubbed Britain’s ‘pornographer in chief’ when he became Channel 4’s chief executive, said “it would be a very good thing indeed for British broadcasting if that were to happen”.
Somehow, though, Channel 4 managed to remain state-owned. The last serious calls for the broadcaster to be privatised came after David Cameron’s 2015 general election victory, when John Whittingdale, the then Culture Secretary and Matt Hancock, the then Cabinet Office Minister, were said to be pushing for it.
A key aspect to their proposal was that it would raise up to £1bn for the government.
Now, however, privatisation talk is again in the air.
The Financial Times reported on Friday that Channel 4 will be “steered towards privatisation” by the UK government as soon as next year. It said ministers were set to launch a formal consultation within weeks on the future of the broadcaster.
This could, according to the FT, even see an outright sale of Channel 4.
Ominously for Channel 4, which has always opposed being privatised, the FT said the consultation would be run by Mr Whittingdale himself.
There are a number of reasons why the idea has resurfaced now. The first is that, in the eyes of some in government, Channel 4’s business model is under pressure. As a free-to-air broadcaster that has few programme rights to exploit, it is unusually exposed to the vagaries of the advertising market, as has been shown during the last year.
The broadcaster reported a pre-tax loss of £26m in 2019 – Channel 4 itself has put this down to the cost of opening its new site in Leeds – but then suffered a collapse in advertising revenues when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March last year.
For its part, Channel 4 itself has said that it expects to report a surplus for the year, with advertising having bounced back strongly in the second half of the year.
The broadcaster also shored up its finances with aggressive cuts to its budget during the pandemic and by taking out loans. One indication of its recovery to financial health was that it repaid furlough money to the Treasury as long ago as last autumn.
It is also argued that the rise of streaming platforms like Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Netflix and the continued strength of multi-channel television broadcasters like Sky, the owner of Sky News, makes Channel 4 vulnerable to a loss of viewers that would eventually hit its advertising revenues.
Channel 4 has responded by arguing that, in 2020, it actually raised its share of television viewing, not only in terms of linear television, but also via digital platforms. It said at the end of last year that digital viewing now accounted for one in every eight hours of Channel 4 viewing.
Despite all this ministers fear that, as a business, Channel 4 is unusually vulnerable.
Earlier this year, Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, vetoed the reappointment of two of Channel 4’s directors, Uzma Hasan and Fru Hazlitt, even though both Channel 4 itself and Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, were supportive.
It was reported at the time that Mr Dowden wanted the two women, both of whom come from a production background, replaced with new directors boasting more financial experience.
Another reason why privatisation may be back on the agenda is the public finances.
Some in Whitehall believe that a significant sum of money could still be made from a sale of Channel 4 – although most analysts who have run the numbers believe any sale proceeds would fall well short of the £1bn mooted six years ago.
It is also argued that a new owner for Channel 4, with deep pockets, might help ensure the quality of its output. The problem is that there are few obvious buyers out there for the channel.
Most of the big US buyers who might be interested are focused on other things while Channel 4’s relative lack of intellectual property rights – a big contrast with, for example, ITV – means there would be few gains to be made by a big media buyer.
Viacom-CBS, the owner of Channel 5, is seen as the likeliest buyer but it, too, is more focused currently on building its streaming service, Paramount+, as well as trying to shore up confidence among its investors after a calamitous drop in its share price earlier this year related to the collapse of the hedge fund Archegos Capital.
Investors also suspect Viacom-CBS will be looking to conserve capital to invest more in content as it battles it out with rivals like Netflix and Disney, whose Disney+ streaming service has strongly outperformed Wall Street’s expectations, rather than use it buying an asset like Channel 4.
Moreover, if any of the big US broadcasters were interested in acquiring a UK free-to-air broadcaster, they are far more likely to alight on ITV which, unlike Channel 4, has its own production arm in ITV Studios and far more intellectual property assets to exploit.
That might make a flotation on the stock market, which would provide Channel 4 with more access to capital, as a likelier outcome – although it has been speculated in some quarters that ITV itself might be a buyer.
Expect Channel 4 to strongly resist any attempt to privatise it.
In the past the broadcaster has been able to muster a substantial lobbying campaign, relying on members of the arts establishment, to argue that its remit to produce distinctive programming would be jeopardised by a change of ownership.
It is also likely to point to the fact that it is a major investor in British content and spends heavily with independent production companies.
That, however, is a harder argument to make when the likes of Sky and Netflix are investing record sums in British programming, when the BBC’s drama output is still scoring hits and when ITV’s production arm is in such fine fettle.
In short, a lot of the arguments Channel 4 has used to resist privatisation in the past may not be as pertinent as was once the case.
This may represent Mr Whittingdale’s best opportunity yet to push for a policy he has sought for 25 years.