British government moving forward with Channel 4 sale

(Logo courtesy Channel 4 UK, Graphic by The Desk)

The British government is going forward with plans to privatize Channel 4, the alternate public broadcaster in the country, after concluding that government operation of the channel is “holding [it] back” in the face of streaming competition.

“A change of ownership will give Channel 4 the tools and freedom to flourish and thrive as a public service broadcaster long into the future,” Nadine Dorries, the head secretary for media in the United Kingdom, said in a statement this week.

Channel 4 executives said they were “disappointed” with the news but affirmed plans to “engage” government officials throughout the process to “ensure that Channel 4 continues to play its unique part in Britain’s creative ecology and national life.”

Channel 4 was originally established in the 1980s to provide competition to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC 1, BBC 2) and Independent Television (ITV Network), with the free-to-air network providing alternate counter programming that offset traditional, mainstream shows aired on the networks and that sought to cultivate a diverse audience of viewers.

It succeeded in that respect between the channels launch in the 1980s and its peak in the early 2000s, though it has faced significant competition of its own from streaming upstarts like Netflix, Amazon and Paramount Global (the latter of which owns Britain’s commercial television network Channel 5).

Households in the United Kingdom pay a television tax, or license, when they own TV sets or equipment capable of receiving live programming. The license funds the BBC’s suite of radio and television stations.

Channel 4, despite being owned by the British public, receives no funding from the government. Instead, the bulk of the network’s revenue comes from commercial advertisements.

Some lawmakers expressed concern this week that putting Channel 4 up for sale would likely draw the interest of foreign media companies, which may decide to do away with its lineup of alternate programming. Last year, reports indicated Discovery, Inc. was interested in bidding for the network.

“Channel 4 provides competition to the BBC on what’s called public service broadcasting, the kinds of programs that are not commercially viable,” conservative lawmaker Jeremy Hunt said in a statement. “I think it’d be a shame to lose that.”

Other lawmakers said putting the channel up for sale could hurt independent media production in places like Scotland, where the network is also carried.

“It…commissions content but doesn’t make [or] own its own,” Scottish lawmaker Ruth Davidson wrote on Twitter. “It’s one of the reasons we have such a thriving [independent media] sector in places like Glasgow.”

Few details have been made available as to how the government intends to proceed with the sale of Channel 4, though officials say they’re committed to ensuring prime-time news and public broadcasting remains at the heart of the network.

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