Channel 4 privatisation would be a Catastrophe for UK television says boss

David Abraham says that if the Government sells off the broadcaster, viewers could lose some shows like Toast of London, Catastrophe and Humans, while "the impact on the creative economy would be utterly devastating"

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Channel 4’s chief executive has warned that a sell-off of the broadcaster could be “devastating” for viewers who could lose some of their favourite shows, such as Catastrophe, Toast of London and Humans.

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David Abraham told a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch today that current discussions within Whitehall about selling C4 would mean a corporate owner eventually ploughing money back to its shareholders rather than investing it in programmes.

“You would definitely not have [comedies] Catastrophe and Chewing Gum and Toast and Fresh Meat,” he said of a privatised Channel 4. “All these things our viewers love. You would not be swinging the bat as often in those genres. This year we have had our highest spend on drama with shows like Humans and Indian Summers too and it has yielded some fantastic results.”

Abraham said a sell off would see “our capacity for experimentation… reduce very dramatically”.

“Would we do as much news and current affairs in primetime? No we would find ways of shaving that. Would we take as many risks as we do with our news and current affairs? Would we do as much investigative journalism with a corporate owner? That becomes more challenging.”

Comedy and drama is made at a net loss for C4, and Abraham said a commercial company would not stomach this.

“Comedy is tough and how much comedy is breaking through from ITV and multichannel? Not as much as on the BBC and Channel 4. It would be under pressure.”

He said that a corporate buyer could make promises about protecting its output but would be subjected to commercial pressures “five years down the line” to change their public service obligations. This would mean less investment in shows and less experimentation of the kind which he said makes C4 “unique”.

However, Abraham said that the viability of a sell-off remains undecided because the Government has still not committed to the idea. And it has not made its mind up about whether the channel’s remit – which was set up by Parliament in the early 1980s – would change in the event of a decision to put it up for sale. 

Abraham said that currently the broadcaster breaks even because it ploughs its profits back into programmes and that a Channel 4 with the same public service obligations and strictures might not be attractive to a commercially competitive buyer.

C4 is currently bound by legislation which prevents it from making its programmes in-house, instead ensuring it works with outside production companies, something Abraham said would change in a potentially devastating way were it sold off.

“Buyers are only serious about buying Channel 4 if they can take production in-house because that is what creates the multiples for them,” he said.

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“What is certain for me is that the impact on the creative economy would be utterly devastating. Working with hundreds of independent production companies up and down the UK is what makes Channel 4 Channel 4. We are a public service broadcaster servicing young audiences like no other.”