Channel 4 boss Alex Mahon delivered a combative rejection of the Government’s privatisation plan and presented a £1bn alternative which would allow the broadcaster to keep taking risks on shows like It’s a Sin and Gogglebox.
Responding to last week’s White Paper setting out a sell-off for Channel 4, Ms Mahon said she had a duty to speak out against Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ proposal, which the executive said would have damaging consequences for the entire UK TV industry.
“The question is ‘What is the government trying to solve with privatising Channel 4?’. I’m not entirely sure what the answer is,” said Ms Mahon who hailed her broadcaster’s “exceptional digital growth and a record-breaking financial performance.”
With 30 nominations ahead of Sunday’s Bafta TV awards, led by AIDS-drama It’s a Sin, the Channel 4 boss rejected Ms Dorries’ assertion that “government ownership is holding Channel 4 back from competing against streaming giants like Netflix.”
“Netflix subscriptions are shrinking for the first time,” said Ms Mahon, who observed that the streamers are now learning to operate under the kind of financial discipline which has been a fact of life at Channel 4 for 40 years. “The era of unlimited, unmitigated, uncontrolled content spend could soon be over.”
Ms Mahon suggested that the channel behind comedy hits such as Derry Girls and We Are Lady Parts might know more about creating innovative programmes that appeal to its target young audience than the Government.
“We are a team who are not only custodians of the Channel 4 remit, but also experts in how to deliver it,” she said.
Channel 4 presented a “radical” alternative plan, which would allow it to raise private finance to secure £1bn in funding for UK programming by 2030, whilst remaining publicly-owned.
It would increase jobs outside London from 400 to 600, ensure 50 per cent of programmes are made in the regions and ultimately offer to sell its landmark £100m HQ near Victoria.
Positioning Channel 4 as the ultimate “levelling up” broadcaster, Ms Mahon pulled apart each element of the White Paper – The network would not be required to maintain any presence in Leeds, Bristol, Glasgow or Manchester under the sell-off plan, she said.
Allowing Channel 4 to make and own its own programmes would cost the UK independent production sector £320m.
Channel 4’s alternative would create 13,000 jobs across the creative industries in the nations and regions, according to one independent analysis. The Dorries policy would result in a loss of £86m programme spending outside of London, reducing programme choice.
The Paralympics, “uncompromising documentaries” like Davina’s Sex Myths and the Menopause and the Black to Front Project to improve black representation on screen would be uncommercial propositions for a privately-owned channel answerable to shareholders.
Whilst it was possible to mandate minimum hours of news and current affairs on a privatised Channel 4, it was unlikely that the distinctive tone of Channel 4 News, which appeals to a younger audience, would be retained or its commitment to covering foreign stories in-depth, Channel 4 suggested.
Ms Dorries has an open invitation to debate the privatisation plan on Channel 4 News, which she has so far declined.
Asked if she believed the Culture Secretary fully understood Channel 4’s role and remit, Ms Mahon paused then said: “She is well on top of her brief and clear about what she wants to achieve in the broadcasting landscape.”
Channel 4 has presented its counter-proposal to the Government but it was summarily dismissed.
DCMS sources said the plan risked Channel 4 becoming a burden on the taxpayer if its funding plans failed and it did not deal with the medium-term threat the broadcaster faces from a decline in advertising revenues as viewing moves online.
“We have discussed this in detail with the government and I think [privatisation] is disappointing and a shame,” admitted Ms Mahon, who said it was now up to MPs and peers to examine the proposal, which could take two years to enact.
A former CEO of the Shine production company with wide business experience, Ms Mahon has been tipped to lead a “management buyout” of Channel 4, funded by a private partner, if the sell-off goes through. She said she had to remain “independent” during the process and was focused on delivering the channel’s remit.
Ms Mahon rejected a suggestion that the BBC Studios, the broadcaster’s commercial wing, could be alllowed to buy Channel 4 and form a UK public service TV powerhouse.
“I don’t know which BBC channel The Man With a Penis on His Arm would sit on,” she said, referring to Channel 4’s recent eye-catching documentary.
Possible bidders for Channel 4 include ITV, Sky, Discovery and Paramount. Ministers believe the sale could raise £500m but the network would be worth more than £1bn if commercial buyers are allowed to dilute its distinctive programming remit.
The DCMS said: “Access to capital and the freedom to make and own content are important tools Channel 4 will need to succeed in the future, create new revenue streams and compete.”
“There is a hypothecated future in which we are struggling in four years but what is factually true today is that we are doing very well,” argued Ms Mahon, who said revenues had exceeded £1bn for the first time in Channel 4’s history.