Reasons to be Cheerful Podcast: 5 takeaways from the latest episode

A roundup of the Reasons to be Cheerful Podcast

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In the latest instalment of our roundup of the Reasons to be Cheerful podcast, I take a look at five takeaways from the latest episode on ‘DON’T CHANGE THE CHANNEL: the case against C4 privatisation’. We look at why the government has decided now is the time to push for privatisation, what it would mean for Channel 4 viewers as well as for independent production companies.

1.Why push for privatisation now?

Despite the opposition of some Tory MPs, the government has decided to go ahead and push for privatisation.  Why now ask some? The Guardian’s Media Editor Jim Waterson thinks part of the reasoning behind it is because the government doesn’t mind picking fights with the media to make a political point, especially against a channel whose coverage hasn’t been so favourable to the Tories.

The government’s push to privatise Channel 4 should be seen as part of its wider attempt to throw some red meat to shift the focus away from Partygate and the cost of living, and back to culture war territory, where it feels more comfortable.

2. What would privatisation mean for viewers?

Waterson says that much of this will depend on how debates among MPs go down as the legislation is discussed.  What clauses need to be put in to protect a privatised Channel 4 is one consideration we’ll have to think about but if they get rid all of the obligations currently underpinning Channel 4, then it really isn’t the same channel, which could be more appealing to a prospective buyer.

“Nobody on earth believes that if and when Channel 4 is privatised they will keep 1 hour of expensive investigative, international news in the heart of prime time”, says President of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, Dorothy Byrne.

Those could be pretty profound changes as the new buyer chases profits and returns for shareholders rather than documentaries and programmes in the public interest.

3.What effect will the privatisation of Channel 4 have on the independent production sector?

As Brian Woods, founder of True Vision production company highlights, “there’s no doubt that in private hands the commitment to regions that is embodied in everything Channel 4 does at the moment, a commercial owner is just not going to pursue that.”

Many independent production companies are dependent on Channel 4 programmes, whereas for a commercial organisation interested in maximising shareholder return, it becomes cheaper to make programmes in-house, with small companies far less likely to survive.

As many as 60 British TV production companies could face going out of business if Channel 4 is privatised.

Woods added that Channel 4 had a distinctive mission and that one of the reasons Britain leads the world in documentary production is ‘that we produce so many and we have a great ladder up which documentary producers can climb, we get to practice and make mistakes.’ That ladder could no longer exist if Channel 4 were privatised.

4. Will a privatised Channel 4 increase or curtail the power of streaming services?

Woods says that the government’s thinking on this topic and has been muddled and confused. ‘Streaming services are in a completely different space’, says Woods, adding that while Netflix does well on producing expensive documentaries and programmes for international audiences, what Channel 4 does is completely different.

It’s a point that Byrne agrees with, saying that it’s completely irrelevant to draw the comparison between Channel 4 and streaming services.

“Netflix does one thing, it makes very expensive programmes and long documentaries for an international audience, Channel 4 is about making programmes for domestic audiences to help democracy”.

5. The public is opposed to the privatisation of Channel 4

Most people are opposed to the government’s plans to privatise the channel. As Dorothy Byrne stated, a government consultation found that “only 2% of people in Britain wanted it to be privatised with 96% against, those are figures a politician should look at”, she said.

91% of the 55,737 organisations and individuals who took part in the Government’s consultation also said they did not think it would be more sustainable under a private owner.

According to a Government report, many also argued that privatisation would have “an overall negative impact” on audiences as it “could reduce the range and diversity of Channel 4’s programme output”.

Basit Mahmood is editor of Left Foot Forward

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