MEDIA: Has Channel 4’s obsession with money sealed its fate?

Michael Grade summoned a small audience of opinion formers to his stainless steel fortress this week to view a corporate video saying how wonderful his channel is for making education and news programmes - while finding new comedy talent. There were clips of Rory Bremner, but not a whiff of Brookside or American imports, let alone a tacky youth programme.

Michael Grade summoned a small audience of opinion formers to his

stainless steel fortress this week to view a corporate video saying how

wonderful his channel is for making education and news programmes -

while finding new comedy talent. There were clips of Rory Bremner, but

not a whiff of Brookside or American imports, let alone a tacky youth

programme.



The reason? The forthcoming Budget is making Channel 4 nervous. The

great worry is that the Chancellor’s revenue predictions might include a

tasty billion or so of gains from the future privatisation of the

network, to be realised after the election. And, although Labour opposes

a sell-off, once such a commitment is written into financial predictions

it takes on a life of its own. The broadcasters, as Grade said, ‘are

always in play’, because their fate so clearly rests on political

decisions, whether it’s fixing the level of the BBC licence fee or

BSkyB’s freedom to enjoy a monopoly over subscription income.



Yet Channel 4 has clumsily assisted in this potential calamity. Its

noisy two-year crusade against the funding formula (it will hand over

pounds 90 million to ITV this year, in return for a financial guarantee)

has created, rightly, such a smell of money that the Treasury

bloodhounds have gathered at its door. Even if it escapes this time its

wealth will be targeted, perhaps by a broadcasting levy. In fairness it

is the victim of a poorly devised safety net - drawn up in such

recessionary conditions it failed to anticipate Channel 4’s success, by

placing an upper limit on the payments it makes.



Channel 4’s best short-term defence must lie in the embarrassment

factor. Privatisation would stir up such a cultural hornet’s nest in an

election year that it would not be worth the trouble. Its chairman, Sir

Michael Bishop, a firm Conservative supporter and fan of privatisation

almost everywhere else, is vehemently opposed to such a step (the

argument runs that gas is gas, whoever delivers it, but programme-

making is different). The Independent Television Commission has also

robustly attacked the proposition, although it is a weakened force,

awaiting the arrival of a new chairman.



What is interesting for the PR industry is the way the broadcasters,

each in their own way are currently currying favour with the public,

promoting themselves as servants of the audience. The BBC has been most

thorough, with its 250 promises to viewers, more explicit producer

guidelines, and a role as custodian of our heritage. ITV is doing its PR

on-screen, through an aggressive brand-building campaign.



Channel 4’s effort is low-key and perilously late. Grade wishes he had

started championing the programmes from its special remit to serve

minorities two years ago, instead of banging on about money. But he

didn’t. I’m left with the feeling that all is not quite right at Channel

4.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in