The privatisation of Channel 4 has caused quite a storm, igniting the usual dividing lines in British politics: those who believe in state ownership and those who do not.
But this case is more nuanced. Channel 4 is owned by the state but is not funded by the taxpayer (unlike the BBC). Therefore, it does not receive money from the license fee but from advertising revenue like ITV and all other TV channels.
Those dismayed by the decision to privatise Channel 4 are mostly concerned about what will happen to the station’s public service broadcasting remit.
Under the Communications Act 2003, Channel 4 is obliged to demonstrate “creativity in the form and content of programmes”, appeal to a culturally diverse society and produce educational programming.
Public service broadcasting (PSB) is understood as broadcasting intended for public benefit rather than to serve purely commercial interests. This includes educational output and news free from vested interest. Accurate information is vital in a democracy, and the concern for public service broadcasting is welcome.
However, this is a lot of fuss about nothing. ITV is also bound to produce public service programming and is regulated by the independent broadcast regulator, Ofcom. There are currently 5 channels in the UK, BBC1, 2 ITV Channel 4 and Channel 5, all with PSB licences that are subject to scrutiny by the regulator.
There is no reason a privately owned Channel 4 would no longer have a duty to produce public service broadcasting. If ITV and Channel 5 are commercially funded and have public service remits, a private Channel 4 could too.
There is trouble on the horizon, however. ITV have raised concerns that requirements to meet PBS quotas, which online platforms are exempt from, damaged their commercial viability during the pandemic. In addition, bans on ‘junk food adverts’ before watershed threaten to hurt commercial PSB’s revenue and their ability to meet obligations. There are fears ITV could wiggle out of some PSB obligations, but ITV are primarily pushing for reform of the system when PSB licences expire at the end of 2024 and could redefine their role in the UK’s PSB framework.
Although we must all recognise that the traditional PSB’s are now playing catch-up to the likes of Netflix and Amazon, Channel 4 can retain a public service remit out of the hands of the government – it has been done before.
It’s up to Ofcom to distribute public service obligations amongst the PSB channels whether they are taxpayer funded, like the BBC, or owned by a subsidiary of US giant Paramount Global, like Channel 5. If anything, privatisation will allow Channel 4 to tailor their own programmes and expand their digital output and raise more cash to produce even more content, and public service broadcasting.