Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

There is no need to ‘fix’ C4

By Kate Bulkley

Broadcast News

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For Broadcast May 12, 2016

Broadcaster is succeeding without privatisation, says Kate Bulkley

As the press corps prepared to leave Channel 4’s annual report presentation this week, one of its senior managers issued a parting shot: “We hope to see you next year.”

Yes, it’s come to this: one of the world’s most successful TV broadcasters and brands is officially in limbo and the next few months could decide its fate over the long-running privatisation debate. C4 chief executive David Abraham and creative guru Jay Hunt outlined strong viewing figures, biggest-ever revenues, plenty of awards and accolades, but the elephant in the room – the ‘P’ word, as one journalist put it – was everywhere: will the government sell C4 to the highest bidder?

Those in favour of privatisation like the potential £1bn that a sale could bring and say that the globalisation of content and distribution is forcing the issue. Aren’t Endemol Shine Group, Sky, ITV and so on all bulking up against changing media consumption and global platforms like Netflix and Amazon?

Does C4 need to change its ownership structure to compete? I would have to say no. No one can deny the figures: £979m in annual revenues (set to burst through £1bn next year); £250m cash reserves, of which £20m is earmarked for the Rio Paralympics and another £30m for whatever good ideas come C4’s way; breakthroughs with online viewing and income; awards for edgy, important shows from My Son The Jihadi and Murder Detectives to Catastrophe and Chewing Gum; and a share in Academy Awards for films including Room and Ex Machina.

It seems to me that C4 is hitting all the right notes for competing not only in the UK, but globally too. It’s become a creative engine for UK Plc, a key commissioner of UK indies and, increasingly, it’s working with global producers and platforms.

This week, C4 announced a partnership with Sony Pictures Television for drama anthology Electric Dreams: The World Of Philip K Dick, to be written by Ronald D Moore (Battlestar Galactica) and starring Bryan ‘Breaking Bad’ Cranston. “It’s being made for C4 – not for ‘C4 plus some other broadcaster’,” explained Hunt. “What’s extraordinary is we are starting to see that we can monetise our taste palette.”

Hunt pointed to C4’s reality series Hunted, which was scooped up by CBS within three weeks of its UK broadcast. Meanwhile, E4 is working with Netflix on two drama series and Film 4 helped to gestate and co-finance Shia LeBeouf movie American Honey, mooted to be a big hit at Cannes this weekend.

C4 was not set up to be a global monolith, but it’s doing a damned good job at playing with the big boys anyway. Would a privatised C4, accountable to shareholders wanting a return on their investment, really back its riskier shows?

The ‘you need to be global to survive’ trope also seems a reach. “We are playing on a global stage already, but on our own terms,” Abraham told me.

“Flying in the face of commercial logic” is how ex-C4 boss and lead advocate of a sell-off Sir Michael Grade describes the current management’s opposition to privatisation. Isn’t there a different logic here: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

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