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Privatisation will “destroy essence of Channel 4”

The channel's chief content officer, Ian Katz, suggests that a profit-driven enterprise would be a "different beast" to the innovative channel people know

Channel 4’s chief content officer Ian Katz has reportedly said that any privatisation of the organisation will ‘destroy the essence of the UK broadcaster’ in an interview with Variety at the Edinburgh TV Festival.

In the interview, Katz pointed to Channel 4’s programming strategy including It’s A Sin and the upcoming disability themed Help in saying that a channel purely driven by profit would be a very “different beast to the special channel that people know now”.

He told Variety, “I think what that approach misses is the fundamental change that you get in an organisation, when you move from an organisation that is purpose-driven to an organisation that is essentially profit-driven, something profound and fundamental happens when you make that shift.

“Inevitably, any purely commercially driven organisation will begin to argue for a weakening of licence requirements. We’ve seen that again and again, in commercial television. And I think it’s a bit like the frog in the frying pan. Over time, inevitably, the essence, what’s really special about the channel, I think, would be destroyed.”

Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon has previously said that assessing the merits of privatisation was a “perfectly reasonable thing to do”, but questioned the logic of doing so, and whether the channel would deliver its public remit in the same way. In an interview with Times Radio, she also highlighted the conflict of any privatisation with the government’s policy on ‘levelling-up’.

“What’s the logic? What if we did sell the channel? Would it deliver this public remit in the same way? And particularly, would it be focused on how you level up outside of London, you know, now we’re spending 50 per cent of our money outside of London, big offices in Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow and Bristol. That’s a very, very different thing, perhaps to the motivation of a profit-based US streamer.”

Mahon also told a UK House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee in June, “What we need from this consultation, should it occur, is certainty that the right questions are being asked about the future of public service broadcasting in Britain. We would need to be questioning whether what the British people get from giving up their ownership of Channel 4 is more compared to what they stand to lose.”

The government consultation into Channel 4 began on 6 July and is scheduled to run until 14 September. Upon its launch, culture secretary Oliver Dowden said, “The media world has changed immeasurably since Channel 4’s creation in the early 1980s, but whilst we have more choice today the need for a strong and successful Channel 4 continues.

“So in the face of rising global competition, now is the right time to strengthen UK public service broadcasters and consider releasing Channel 4 from the constraints of public ownership, enabling it to thrive for the next 40 years and beyond.”

The government is set to release a white paper in the autumn which will “consider the future of the country’s broadcasting landscape with the ultimate aim of making sure it serves listeners and viewers on all platforms and across the UK”. The government has said that the paper will be influenced by Ofcom’s ongoing PSB review, the government’s own strategic PSB review as well as the recommendations of the Digital Radio and Audio Review, which was scheduled to be completed by March of this year, but so far has yet to be released.