Channel 4: Privatisation — [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:43 am on 21st July 2021.

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Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Minister of State 10:43 am, 21st July 2021

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am not going to have time to give way.

I absolutely pay tribute to ITN for the work it has done for Channel 4, and it is certainly our intention that, whatever happens to Channel 4, news should remain a major part of its schedule. However, there have been huge changes. When Channel 4 was created, there was a choice between the BBC and ITV. Channel 4 was founded by a Conservative Government in 1982 to provide alternative viewpoints, and it has been very successful in doing that. Since that time, we have seen the advent of satellite television and the coming of digital terrestrial television. Now we have the streaming services, so there has been a huge explosion in choice. Some of that content, which was originally not available and which Channel 4 was set up to provide, is now available in a large number of different places, so Channel 4 needs to adapt to that.

The latest Ofcom report on the future of public service broadcasting states:

“Rapid change in the industry—driven by global commercial trends and a transformation in viewing habits—is making it harder for public service broadcasters to compete for audiences and maintain their current offer… Change needs to happen—and fast.”

That is why we have set up the review of public service broadcasting, and why it is right to consider whether Channel 4 is best placed to continue to thrive under the current ownership model, because there are some worrying signs.

Channel 4 is entirely dependent on advertising, unlike other broadcasters such as ITV, which has successfully diversified into production, or the BBC, which can rely on the licence fee. Channel 4 relies on advertising. More than 90% of its revenue comes from linear TV advertising, and advertising is under pressure. It is likely to come under greater pressure, in part due to the actions that Parliament is going to take in restricting advertising spending on, for instance, foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar, and possibly such spending with respect to gambling, which we are considering at the moment. Therefore, that model is already coming under pressure.

Competition from the streaming services is almost inevitably going to lead to a decline in audience share over time as more and more content is provided by such services, which can outspend Channel 4 by a factor of 10 with respect to how much they can invest in high-quality content.

Reference was made to Channel 4’s performance. Yes, it did well to record a profit this year, but it is worth bearing in mind how it did so. It is not difficult to continue to make a profit if spending on content is cut by £138 million. That is what happened. Channel 4 slashed the budget on content. It did not, incidentally, slash the budget on employment expenditure, which actually went up—all the money came out of content spend. It is difficult to see how that it is going to be able to return to a position of spending the amount that it was previously. Yes, Channel 4 has been supporting independent producers, although the figure that was quoted of support for more than 300 independent producers is not actually correct. The annual report shows that 161 production companies have been supported that actually meet the definition of indies.

Yes, Channel 4 has moved its headquarters to Leeds—against great resistance—and Alex Sobel is right to celebrate the fact that he has a new building there, but it is worth bearing in mind that Channel 4 still has a very large and expensive building about 100 yards from where we are today. Therefore, if it is properly committed in that regard, there is a case for it to move more employees and to do more outside London.

There is a question whether private ownership might result in greater investment. I was surprised to hear from my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell that he questions whether it is possible to fulfil public policy purposes and to satisfy shareholders. He will know that any number of utility companies are doing exactly that. I point to examples such as the telecommunications companies, the electricity companies and the gas companies.