UK’s Channel 4 may be privatized by 2024, official says

The United Kingdom’s fourth major terrestrial television network could see a fundamental shift in its operation within a few years, according to a key government official in charge of setting media policy in the country.

The shift would be the outcome of a major review of public service television broadcasters in the United Kingdom ordered last October.

The remark was made by Oliver Dowden, the country’s secretary of state for culture and media, who said Channel 4 faces the potential of being converted into a privatized operation and sold to a commercial enterprise  if the outcome of the review deems it necessary or appropriate.

The United Kingdom has five main terrestrial television networks offering programs across the country. Those five networks include BBC One and BBC Two, which are entirely owned by the government and funded through a fee levied on British residents who want to watch TV programs.

Two other networks — ITV and Channel 5 — are operated as independent commercial enterprises intended to compete against the BBC.

Channel 4 exists somewhere in the middle: It is owned by the British government, but receives no funding from the fee imposed on TV viewers there. Instead, the network is funded entirely by advertisements, and the channel is expected to provide alternate, diverse and “distinctive” programs compared to shows aired on the two BBC networks and ITV.

As a condition of the channel’s license, it was required to source programs from outside ventures who were unaffiliated with the network. This spurred an increase of independent production companies in Britain and elsewhere who sold high-quality dramas, sitcoms and documentaries to Channel 4 that were unlike anything screened on the other two channels.

In this way, Channel 4 resembled commercial operations found in other countries, including the United States and Canada. And like commercial broadcast networks there, Channel 4 and the other networks have been in a precarious situation due to the rise of global streaming services — including Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime — which have started to draw viewers away from Channel 4 and the other networks.

The changing media landscape in Britain started to force some government officials to consider the future of public broadcasters in the country.

Some have already seen deep cuts: In 2014, the BBC announced it would shave £100 million (around US $140 million) from its operating expenses by reducing staff and moving some traditional broadcast networks to the Internet. One network, BBC Three, was eventually pulled from the air and offered as a streaming-only channel. (Earlier this year, officials approved a plan to re-launch BBC Three as a terrestrial network by 2022, but that plan is conditioned on regulatory approval that may not come.)

Last October, Dowden said it wasn’t just the BBC that was in the crosshairs, but the entire public broadcast landscape, which included ITV and Channel 4. Since then, much of the attention has focused on whether the government would spin Channel 4 off into a private operation that could be commercially sold to an outside venture.

John Wittingdale, a government official who once had Dowden’s job, expressed similar sentiments last year.

“Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 survives as an advertising-funded model,” Wittingdale said in an interview with the Guardian. “With the advent of the streamers and other competing services that model is under considerable strain….We do need to think about Channel 4 and whether there is still a need for a second publicly owned public service broadcaster, or what function it should fulfill.”

If Channel 4 is converted into a privatized network, it would become the third major television network in the United Kingdom to operate as a commercial enterprise. ITV has operated as an independent, commercial network since it was licensed in 1955. Channel 5, which was launched in 1997, is owned by American media conglomerate ViacomCBS.

The deliberation over Channel 4 and the other broadcasters are not entirely rooted in economic considerations: Some politicians have grown increasingly frustrated over what they consider to be polarization and bias in news reports aired across television, as well as certain political activities by certain executives at each network.

For years, the BBC has drawn scrutiny from conservative officials of bias, especially over its coverage of the United Kingdom’s successful attempt to divorce itself from the European Union (colloquially known as “Brexit”). Aggrieved politicians have threatened to end the broadcast fee scheme that fully funds the BBC’s domestic television and radio networks when that charter lapses next year.

Channel 4 has also been the target of criticism over its media coverage of political affairs, especially after a 2019 incident in which the network’s head of news programming compared Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a presentation with other media executives.

“If we continue to be so polite, how will our viewers know that politicians are lying?” Dorothy Byrne questioned during the presentation, adding that news outlets in Britain had an obligation to point out Johnson’s falsehoods.

When later asked to defend her statements, Byrne quipped, “nobody has said that what I’ve said isn’t true.”