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The future of Channel 4: opinion piece

Posted on 05/11/2012

In the week Channel 4 celebrated its 30th anniversary since first appearing on the nation's screens, Dr James Bennett, Department of Media Arts, writes about the last 30 years at the channel and poses questions about its future in a competitive, digital landscape.

Featured in Broadcast, 2 November 2012

This month Channel 4 celebrates its 30th anniversary as a public service broadcaster. It has courted success, controversy and sometimes failure in that time. It has routinely challenged audiences, from its groundbreaking early programming like Out on Tuesday to its recent record-breaking coverage of the Paralympics. Channel 4 has opened television to a diverse set of issues, voices and debates that expand our media experiences and enrich our cultural life – but can its role continue in a competitive, digital landscape? 

This is a question that is largely determined by the broadcasters’ relationship with the independent sector: its ability to balance Indies’ need for profit with its own public service aims and its capacity to extend this relationship across digital platforms that increasingly define our experiences of content.

C4’s fate has long been tied up with this complex relationship with Indies. Its radical model as a publisher-broadcaster effectively ushered in an era of ‘Indie’ producers, a sector which has grown exponentially from the handful of companies that existed in 1982 to an industry populated by over 1000 companies. A sector now worth over £2.3bn annually: an increase of 150% from a decade earlier.

This growth is routinely represented as a success story of UK Plc and the role of the Creative Industries: most recently in the wake of the Olympics, which saw David Cameron trumpet their success at the same time as making significant cuts to arts and culture budgets. The fate of Channel 4’s next 30 years, and that of the independent production sector, is deeply entwined with this tension between public spending cuts and commercial success.

Following a major two year study of the independent sector, researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London, University of Sussex and London Metropolitan argue there is clear evidence that Indies make considerable cultural and economic investment in the meanings and programming forms of public service broadcasting. It is, as one MD of an Indie told us, “what we get out of bed in the morning”. Indies routinely identified public service as a motivation above and beyond profit, which at the same time delivered results to their bottom line.

But the cultural commitment from Indies to C4’s public service remit might be under threat. Decreasing production budgets from broadcasters and the imperative to sell formats overseas as a result of producers’ retention of IP rights following 2003 Communication Act’s have resulted in aversion to risk. This has the potential to undermine the creation of the kind of challenging, innovative, diverse and engaging programming that has been the hallmark of C4. Senior producers worried that younger generations lacked the skill set and training in public service modes of production that had been so pivotal to their success. 

Yet a movement away from the 30 year cultural commitment to public service broadcasting would only harm UK Plc: it is PSB that makes UK content unique, innovative, challenging and sellable around the world.

There remain grounds for optimism. Not least because of the cultural commitment to PSB found across so many independents, but also because of Channel 4’s investment in multiplatform production and digital platforms. From apps that increase our awareness of sexual health – Embarrassing Bodies – to successful multiplatform ethical fishery campaigns – Fish Fight – C4 has taken some its pioneering, challenging and innovative approach to public service online. And it is taking a group of talented digital producers, committed and passionate about public service, with it. If it can balance profit and public service, and its commitment to diversity of independent suppliers with the need to foster a close relationship with digital indies, C4 can help create a digital public service sector that will ensure the broadcaster's continuing relevance for a multiplatform future.


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