Why moving Channel 4 out of London is a bad idea

The broadcaster has been saved from privatisation – but should it move out of the capital? Ben Dowell thinks not…

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Channel 4 has been saved from privatisation. That is at least the good news coming for the broadcaster this afternoon when culture secretary Karen Bradley is expected to confirm in a speech in Salford that the Government has ruled out privatising the ad-funded publicly-owned broadcaster after a protracted internal consultation on the issue.

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But she has said that she wants C4 to relocate some or all of its operations outside London.

Not surprisingly the broadcaster has welcomed the decision against privatisation, but remains steadfastly opposed to moving some or all of its 820 staff (currently located in Horseferry Road in Victoria) out of the capital.

Firstly privatisation. This brings to an end the long saga over a possible £1bn (or so) sale which was kick-started 18 months ago when culture secretary John Whittingdale first denied it was on the agenda – before a briefing document suggesting it was very much on the agenda was captured by a Downing Street snapper.

Since then the Channel has been in limbo, repeatedly railing against the uncertainty of the review and arguing its case forcefully.

That issue has now been put to bed only for the relocation issue – which has also been rumbling on in the background of all this – to come to the fore.

Today Bradley will suggest that a move will “serve the country” and spread creative jobs and opportunities throughout the UK.

Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city and centrally located, is considered the favourite option with Leeds or Manchester also a possibility.

Bradley will argue in her speech, which was leaked late last night: “I am unsympathetic towards those who recoil in horror at the very idea of media jobs being based outside the capital. Or for those who insist that people with ideas in the West Midlands, West Country or west Wales must travel to Westminster to get their programmes made.”

Channel 4 remains steadfastly opposed to the move, believing it would actually be counter productive. And you can see their arguments.

In my view, a move would be costly and the best way to serve UK regions would, as C4 says, come from commissioning more programmes out of London.

The Government likes to cite the example of the BBC’s launch of a “northern powerhouse” in Salford, where BBC Sport and Radio 5 Live are now based. But C4’s argument is that the BBC, which is directly funded by the licence fee and not from advertising, has the capacity to facilitate real change in a place like Salford in a way that a “publisher” broadcaster like C4 with no production capacity of its own doesn’t.

C4 commissions all its shows and is dependent on an uncertain revenue stream for its survival. Moving 820 people who are engaged in commissioning would simply not have a material impact in the way the Salford move did when around 3,000 of the BBC’s 18,000 plus staff were moved.

Plus it’s not even clear if regional producers want C4 to move. A number of independent producers in the regions are known to be opposed to the idea. If Birmingham is chosen, for example, wouldn’t indies based in Manchester or Newcastle or Glasgow be at a disadvantage to the city that is chosen?

Many non-London-based production companies visit the capital regularly to talk to other broadcasters and having C4’s commissioning team outside London would simply be an inconvenient hindrance, as suggested by many producers I have spoken to.

Also Channel 4 is dependent on advertising in a way the BBC is not. The vast majority of ad agencies are based in the capital and C4 believes its bottom line could be adversely affected by a move, leading to a knock-on drop in its spend outside London.

What C4 is arguing, and it is hard to disagree, is that it would be much better for it to spend more of its commissioning money on the regional production sector.

Already C4 spends £150m each year on the nations and regions (ie outside London) from its total annual programme spend of £450m.

Show like Hollyoaks and Paul Abbott’s No Offence are made in the north, for example, with Caitlin Moran’s Raised by Wolves, and My Kitchen Rules made in the Midlands. There are many other examples.

In fact C4 already exceeds its obligations to spend 35% of its income – and have 35% of its broadcast hours – from outside the capital. The current figure is more than 40% of spend and more than 50% of hours which is pretty good going, frankly, although this could – and probably should – be increased.

Nobody believes that the disparity in financial muscle and influence between London and the rest of the UK isn’t a problem that needs to be addressed and soon. 

But it would be wrong to argue that C4 is opposed to the move because it’s full of cappuccino-sipping metropolitans horrified at moving outside London (although there are probably a few employees who would meet that description).

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It is just that moving Channel 4 outside the capital is the wrong answer to an important question.